Michael Clayton: Just Pretend This Isn't Madness

I am Shiva, God of Death

By James J. Murtagh, M.D.

(James Murtagh spent 20 years as an Intensive Care Unit physician. Dr. Murtagh is a member of Semmelweis Society International, and has hosted several Congressional forums on the Healthcare Integrity Project.)

Spoiler alert- Consider seeing the movie before reading this Op Ed

Corporate crime films- from Silkwood, to Serpico, the Insider, and SiCKO- focus on the victims, and underdogs overcoming corruption. They are David versus Goliath films. But whoever tells the inside story of the Goliaths?

Surely, Goliath didn't think of himself as a monster. He saw himself as a tragic soldier, serving his own god, and his family, unfairly defeated by a tiny man with a slingshot. What makes the giant "scurvy spiders" of industry tick? How do good people go bad and sink to corporate crime? In George Clooney's new film, Michael Clayton we see a giant company's lawyers close up under siege.

In an inverse of Erin Brockovich, U/North, the film's corporate Goliath, is caught red-handed in multi-billion dollar environmental catastrophe, killing hundreds of persons. As events spin out of control, lawyers and officers of U/North sweat bullets, and unblinkingly, this film shows the people behind the disaster. They are just people, with mortgages and families, and must overcome their circumstances to rise above the evil they have slipped into.

"I am Shiva, God of Death," declares a key defense lawyer as he cracks under the stress and guilt, going manic. So, U/North calls in groups of fixers; some semi-legitimate, such as Michael Clayton; but other a strictly black ops paramilitary team. Every move, every phone call, is being monitored by the black ops team that will do whatever it takes. Clayton declares he is a janitor, and that "The truth can be adjusted," updating Orwell's doublethink, the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously. Clayton apparently believed at the film's beginning that "Ignorance is Bliss," and "Freedom is Slavery."

"Will someone rid me of this meddlesome priest?" Most wrenching and fascinating is the U/North top legal ace cryptically ordering the death of the manic lawyer-turned-whistleblower. But the silk-stocking legal ace can't bring herself to say the actual words needed to order the killing. Through her desperation, she manages to convey that she wants the killers to "proceed."

The U/North counsel never has a moment of peace after. Like a corporate Lady MacBeth, she is never able to wash off the damned spot. The murder leads to more murder attempts, and events spiral out of control until the end. Her moment of redemption is impossible, it appears, until she is finally caught.

The suffering of tyrants has been the subject of great tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare. How do corporate tyrants live with their guilty consciences? In this film, guilt leads one lawyer to a madness that was greater than the truth. Guilt leads other lawyers to murder and cover-up. Guilt led Michael Clayton initially to complicity, to gambling, to other vice, but finally led him to do the right thing and expose the corporate culture of cover-up and murder.

"Corruption is why we win" declared a character in George Clooney's related film, Syriana. Some officers relish in wrongdoing. Others simply accept the banality of evil as a fact of corporate life. Most characters just appear to slip into it. Few want to accept any responsibility.

Corporate legal aces are the cream of our society. Top lawyers have the finest educations, finest backgrounds, and finest things that can be had in life. What leads to their downfall? What leads some to become Tom Hagen and some to be Matlock? Why did Goliath become Goliath? We need our best and brightest to work to end global warming instead of working for Enron. We need our best reporters to live up to the ideals of Edward R. Murrow, as portrayed in Clooney's Good Night, Good Luck. We must reject double think.

Indeed, corporations, not government, may be Big Brother. Beyond dispute, lawyers have been at the center of the great scandals and cover-ups of our times. Understanding the descent of great legal minds into morass is one of our society's great tasks.

Shiva, the ancient double-faced Hindu deity, is both destroyer and life-giver, is a perfect symbol of the two sides of corporate crime.

James J. Murtagh Jr., MD, Atlanta GA 30329