‘Michael Clayton’/’Lions for Lambs’

Clooney is back at his liberal best


America’s rightwing bloviators like to go on about “liberal Hollywood.” They have half a point, but they neglect to notice that for every “Erin Brockovich” or “JFK,” there’s a “300” or “Top Gun.” It’s just that the rightwing viewpoint tends to be subsumed as flag-waving patriotism or military superiority under the aegis of “entertainment” (see “Transformers” for a recent example), whereas leftwing films tend to be more overt about their politics.

The Poster-boy and punching bag for “liberal Hollywood” these days seems to be George Clooney; never afraid of airing his views, he’s started putting them in films. 2005-2006 saw the double whammy of “Good Night and Good Luck,” an anti-McCarthyism newsroom drama directed by Clooney, and “Syriana,” the power-politics/big oil expose in which Clooney starred and produced.

Clooney’s back in liberal crusader mode (after the capitalist money-raking diversion of “Ocean’s 13”) in “Michael Clayton” (titled “The Fixer” in Japan), a taut suspense flick from “The Bourne Identity” co-writer Tony Gilroy.

This time he plays a shady, former corporate lawyer, now doing gray-zone work for whoever’s paying and needs the sort of services you can’t put down in writing.

Michael Clayton
Director Tony Gilroy
Run Time 120 minutes
Language English
Lions for Lambs
Director Robert Redford
Run Time 92 minutes
Language English

The law firm he used to work for calls him in to track down an old friend, Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson), who’s gone off the rails. Edens is in charge of defending agrochemical corporation U/North against charges of selling a dangerously carcinogenic product, and after he has a nervous breakdown, all involved worry he might talk about what he knows. U/North’s chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) decides Edens must be shut up no matter what, and the film becomes a race between Clayton, who wants to help his friend, and U/North’s ruthless operatives.

Swinton is memorably slimy in her stoop-to-anything corporate scumbag role, though not as extraordinary as her Best Supporting Actress Oscar would suggest. For my money, the manic nutter rants of Tom Wilkinson were at least as good.

It’s Clooney’s film, though, and he’s an expert now at these world-weary cynics who find that there are limits to how much they don’t care (“Out Of Sight,” “Syriana,” “The Good German”). The slow and reluctant conversion to doing the right thing here is modeled on such classic antiheroes as Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” or Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown.”

Films like this usually have pretty mixed conclusions, though, rejecting the comforting notion that the flawed hero will make everything good again. “Michael Clayton” thinks otherwise and despite the big-bad corporation bashing here, it winds up feeling more “Hollywood” than “liberal.” The film tries, and succeeds, to cultivate a gritty, 1970s feel, but the denouement is strictly from this audience-tested decade.

* * * * *

“Lions for Lambs,” one in a coming deluge of Iraq war movies (“Redacted,” “In The Valley Of Elah,” “Grace Is Gone”), looks like liberal Hollywood. You’ve got Meryl Streep — as a seasoned, sharp-tongued reporter — interviewing a conservative senator played by Tom Cruise in snake-oil salesman mode (think “Magnolia”) on his new plan to win the war in Afghanistan. Then you’ve got some American soldiers meeting a nasty end on an Afghan mountain full of Taliban guerrillas due to the senator’s policy.

Parallel to this is a liberal college professor (Robert Redford) berating a slacker student (Andrew Garfield) for skipping his studies. The student, a political-science major, expresses disdain for the whole political system, while his prof espouses action before talk — like his former idealistic students who are now on that Afghan mountain in uniform.

“Lions for Lambs” is, charitably, an accurate snapshot of America in the year 2008 — the total disconnection between war supporters and skeptics, the distance between those in the s**t and those talking about it. The film bombed at the box office in the United States because the dialogue — scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan — sounds like a compilation of every op-ed column of the past five years. It’s a wordy movie, and also overly glib and polished; but perhaps that’s the point, a display of the knee-jerk views we so easily subscribe to.

Moreover, the film — directed by Redford — is so completely even-handed, it fails to say anything, except that it’s good to take a stand . . . or is it? We see young lives sacrificed for no good end. Or maybe it was a good end. “Lions for Lambs” sure won’t tell you.