George Clooney’s Best Movie And Why You Probably Haven’t Seen It

There's a good chance you haven't seen George Clooney's best work.

By Michileen Martin | Published

This article is more than 2 years old

george clooney best movie

Some folks have some pretty funny ideas about the name of George Clooney’s best movie. Looper says it’s the 1999 black comedy Three Kings. Rotten Tomatoes will tell you it’s 2013’s tense sci-fi thriller Gravity. Cinema Blend thinks it’s the 2001 heist ensemble Ocean’s Eleven, and the guys at Variety were clearly needing sleep when they compiled their top 10 list last year because the correct answer doesn’t even show up.

No, George Clooney’s best movie doesn’t unfold during a desert war, it has nothing to do with robbing casinos, and the actor doesn’t spend most of the movie playing a figment of someone else’s imagination. It takes place in a world much closer to our own and has a very simple, non-stylized name — we’re talking about the 2007 legal thriller Michael Clayton.

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George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007)

The titular hero of George Clooney’s best movie is not the kind of lawyer you’re used to seeing on the big screen. Michael Clayton makes no passionate and poetic final arguments in front of an enthralled jury. There is no “Aha!” moment when Clayton finally notices that tricky piece of evidence that had been staring him in the face the whole time. Michael Clayton is a fixer. He doesn’t make arguments in court — he doesn’t even settle arguments out of court. He bribes cops, he calls in favors, he intimidates, he threatens, or whatever else he needs to do in order to make problems go away before they become problems. And being that guy for as long as he’s been that guy has hollowed out whatever it is within him that’s supposed to make him a person. When we meet Clayton, he’s broke, failing as a father, owes money to the mob, is worried his job is in jeopardy, and any illusions about who he is have been whittled away.

What’s left of Clayton’s conscience is put to the test when one of his few true friends — the brilliant, schizophrenic lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) — goes off his medication. Clayton is tasked with reining in his friend, but Edens’ supposed insanity awakens his own conscience and puts him in peril with the powerful, global conglomerate who has been his sole focus for years. While trying to find a way to cover his losses with the mob and take care of his son, Clayton finds himself trying to save Edens’ job, without even knowing just how much danger is friend is in. At the same time he tries and fails to console the chilling U-North lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton).

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Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007)

While Clooney is the focus of Michael Clayton, part of what makes it George Clooney’s best movie is that there isn’t a wasted actor, a wasted character, or a single throw-away line of dialogue. Wilkinson and Swinton both turn in incredible, career-defining performances, and Swinton won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Karen Crowder. Sydney Pollack is disarmingly vicious as Marty Bach, and Michael O’Keefe is perfect as the backstabbing Barry. Perhaps the biggest unsung hero of Michael Clayton is Bill Raymond as Gabe — Clayton’s contact from the mob. Raymond plays perhaps the most un-mobster mobster in the history of cinema, looking and acting as threatening as a fluffy cat asleep on a pillow, and yet somehow helping to maintain the invisible, yet ever-present threat he represents.

Michael Clayton was written by Tony Gilroy, who also became a first time feature director with the film. His scripting and the actors’ interpretation of his words combine to make the kinds of scenes you want to rewatch all on their own, even if you don’t have two hours to watch the rest of the film. Scenes like Clayton exchanging words with an angry, wealthy client (Denis O’Hare) who hit a bicyclist with his car, Clayton and Edens yelling at each other in a Milwaukee jail cell, and Clayton’s final confrontation with a crumbling Karen Crowder are the types you’ll want to watch over and over again just for the words, and to enjoy the actors reveling in them.

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Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (2007)

Michael Clayton is ultimately about our struggles to save our souls, what it costs to do so, and what it costs to fail. That could be a pretty empty sentiment in most movies. Sure, Clayton has to struggle to do the right thing — so does every hero in every movie. What makes this George Clooney’s best movie, however, is that the world in which Michael Clayton faces his difficult choices is a world millimeters away from our own. Sure, Bloodsport struggles to do the right thing in The Suicide Squad and Luke Skywalker struggles to do the right thing in Return of the Jedi. But Michael Clayton’s battle isn’t in a world with Death Stars or giant starfish — it’s a world where you have to work out visitation with your ex-wife. It’s a world where your drug addict brother stole your sister’s tires, where your boss won’t believe you no matter what you say, and where your friend won’t take his pills.

Michael Clayton is George Clooney’s best movie. If you disagree, no worries — being wrong is legal. If you’ve never seen it, it’s currently streaming on HBO Max. Check it out and decide for yourself.