Saturday, January 31, 2009

Michael Clayton: When you run out of fixes...

This is not so much a review of the movie, rather an exploration of thoughts that have arisen from the film in the context of current events. I am not overly concerned here with the cinematic quality of the picture, but the extent to which film-making is informed by social circumstances, and how a popular film may reveal to us something about our world.

Wall St has undergone over the past few months a seismic shift, and the after-shocks and tsunamis have spread beyond the shores of the US to financial markets everywhere. Economies have been thrown into recession, corporations have failed, and ordinary people everywhere have seen their retirement savings put into serious jeopardy. The crisis has its origins in the packaging of US home mortgages that should never have been written into toxic debt instruments that have been traded all over the globe. Share markets have gone into free-fall, and credit markets have seized as a result. Now after the horse has bolted there is a desperate scramble for a “fix”. But it is too late for fixes: those responsible for this debacle have face to the consequences, as will the rest of us - the suckers who bought retail.

Michael Clayton’s job was fixing things – discreetly and behind the scenes – for the clients of a top New York law firm. He was “the janitor”, working out of sight and getting his hands dirty in the dark places where things that somebody wants buried get buried and stay buried.

“The truth can be adjusted”: like the discardable history written and re-written as often as necessary by the automatons in the solitary cubicles in George Orwell's 1984, where persons, events, and even places, are erased from collective memory, and like the skins in the movie Dark City who labour every night underground with the conspiring bio-chemist to erase and re-construct individual memory, and actual physical reality, so that individual consciousness ceases to exist.

Michael Clayton opens with “the janitor” called in the early morning from a card game in a noir dive to the home of a wealthy client, who wants to bury a hit-and-run. The client, whose sense of entitlement to a fix that will not inconvenience him is as nauseating as it is breathtaking, has to face the stark reality that not even Clayton can bury this one.

Here we have the central motif of the film: no-one wants to take responsibility. The only guy who does, a litigator with the firm and Clayton’s friend, first goes off the wall for his trouble and is then rubbed out by his erstwhile client.

The resolution is pure Hollywood, and the film is weaker for this, with all the loose-ends nicely tied, after Clayton is faced to confront his responsibility to his dead friend, and only after an attempt is made on his own life - even then he is motivated not by justice but by his outrage that some-one had the temerity to think he could out-smart him.

The true origin of the current financial melt-down lies in the same unwillingness to take responsibility. From the real estate brokers who did not look beyond their brokerage check when pushing people into taking on debt that they could never repay, and the bankers who traded the complex financial instruments with no regard for the quality of the underlying assets, to the regulators and politicians who neglected to properly regulate financial markets.