The pseudo-Erin Brockovich "evil-conglomerate-poisoning-innocent-people legal drama" plot in Michael Clayton is really a giant Macguffin. The U/North case and all the behind-the scenes machinations are like a giant, enclosed pinball machine inside of which the characters bounce and occasionally collide. It's the characters who are the real purpose of the movie and, though they all have different, often opposing motivations, they all have one thing in common - they live and operate on the dark side of the moral spectrum while aspiring toward righteousness.
First, we have Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) a lawyer who snaps in grand Network style, after a revelation about the morality of his life's work. He is a man who spent his life being underhanded and suddenly longs to be on the other side, going as far as to cut off all contact with his former life. This, of course, worries his firm, who has millions of dollars riding on his skills, so they send in their in-house fixer, Michael Clayton (George Clooney). Clayton is regularly called in to do the firm's dirtiest dirty work, but, like Arthur, he also longs for a blameless life. the film takes time to show his shattered family life (his attention-starved son, anxious ex, and down-and-out brother), and his dismal financial condition (insurmountable debt from a failed restaurant). The difference between Arthur and Michael is that Michael lives in a world of reality. He knows what he has to do despite his desire to do what is right. The third character is the most interesting. Corporate spokeswoman Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is really a good, kind woman who meticulously practices and polishes her strong facade, but in her increasingly desperate attempts to protect her company, she finds herself sinking deeper and deeper into moral quicksand. Arthur and Karen each stand on shaky moral ground and their falls are spectacular and sad. Only Michael - the only character who can accept who he is and what he has to do - stays on his feet.
Michael Clayton is up for seven Academy Awards - three of which are for its actors, and rightfully so. With some of the most well-rounded characters of the year, the film is an acting showcase above all else. The acting categories are tough this year, but I think Tilda Swinton has the best shot of the three. It is also up for Best Score and Best Original Screenplay, but, again, competition is fierce, though if one movie upsets Juno for writing, it will be Michael Clayton. As for Best Director and Best Picture, Michael Clayton is an intimate film that lacks the epic scope of most of its competition. I'm reminded of another movie from a few years ago (also featuring Tom Wilkinson) called In The Bedroom - a highly-nominated actors' showcase which walked away with nothing. Michael Clayton might not do quite that bad, but don't expect a sweep.