Clooney's Movie Illustrates A Paranoid Age

George Clooney, with Tom Wilkinson, in "Michael Clayton"
Warner Bros
Sunday Morning movie reviewer David Edelstein says that George Clooney's new movie "Michael Clayton" isn't completely original, but he is excellent in it.

In "Michael Clayton," George Clooney plays a crisis-handler for the rich and irresponsible, the kind he probably needed himself after his recent motorcycle crash. But I digress. The movie is a morality tale that centers on conscience - how some people suppress it and others risk everything by blowing the whistle.

Conspiracy whistleblower films are in fashion these days, and it's no mystery why. Love or hate the Bush administration, you have to admit that its secrecy has created the ripest environment for paranoia since the Watergate era.

It was grim in the seventies. Sydney Pollack, who's also in "Michael Clayton," made "Three Days of the Condor" with Robert Redford as an egghead whose division is wiped out at the behest of a CIA nut.

The late director Alan Pakula was even more of a paranoia specialist. He teamed with Warren Beatty as a journalist trying to blow the whistle on an assassination plot in the downbeat "The Parallax View." Then Pakula tackled Watergate itself in "All the President's Men," in which overhead shots imply someone's watching, and parking garages are fear chambers.

Today, the conspiracy mascot is Clooney. In "Syriana," he tries to blow the whistle on the military-industrial complex's exploitation of the Middle East - the provocation for terrorism. "Good Night, and Good Luck" suggested comparisons between the McCarthy hearings and what Clooney sees as the present intolerance of dissent.

"Michael Clayton" is set in a world where corporations retain high-priced law firms to ward off oversight, and the last line of defense is a moral individual.

Photos: "Michael Clayton" Premiere
Photos: George Clooney At The U.N.
Photos: George Clooney
As a scandal-janitor for a huge firm, Clayton's job is to muzzle his friend Arthur - a prodigiously twitchy Tom Wilkinson - who has cracked under the strain of doing bad things for bad people. Tilda Swinton is the conscience-less, profit-hungry corporation's new legal counsel. I know people who think the portrait is anti-feminist, but I found her fascinating. She's scared and human under her icy demeanor, which makes her subsequent decisions so shocking.

"Michael Clayton" isn't one of those jittery motion-sickness pictures. It has a measured beat, to the point where you say, 'Go, hurry up, I can't take this anymore." In outline, it's not particularly original. But it's gripping, and Clooney is terrific.

Nowadays it's inspiring to watch it dawn on a man that while whistle-blowing can mean death, being a cog in an infernal machine is not a design for living.