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The film opens with an outlandishly psychotic monologue by a brilliant bulldog litigator named Arthur (played by Tom Wilkinson), who's snapped after six years of working on a case involving the firm's largest client, a chemical manufacturer being sued for billions by hundreds of the family members of people killed by a toxic weed killer. Appalled by what he's devoted himself to doing, Arthur has stopped taking his meds for manic-depression, gone crazy, and stripped naked during a key deposition for the case. Clooney is dispatched to sober him up and make sure he doesn't botch the lawsuit on which the future of the law firm depends.
Along the way, Clooney sees what Arthur has discovered about the culpability of the chemical manufacturer and why he's flipped out. It turns out that the weed-killing client, their in-house attorney (hyperalert Tilda Swinton), and the managing partner of Michael and Arthur's firm, all know about the product's toxicity and the people it is killing. Michael eventually must decide where to draw the moral line as he realizes how aligned he's become with society's unscrupulous fat cats and greed merchants and the lawyers who protect them.
Michael Clayton is a thinking person's film. It explains very little, just lets the audience feel increasingly engulfed by a growing awareness of the bottomless corruption and ruthlessness of our world. As never before, Clooney leads us behind his dark, puppy-dog eyes to a weakness and uncertainty we've never been allowed to see before. It's his most unglamorous role and--just as was true of Paul Newman in The Verdict--the resonance of unexpectedly seeing our warrior/loverboy hero in the role of a loser offers the audience an emotional wallop.