“I’m Not a Miracle Worker, I’m a Janitor”

Why Michael Clayton is still the best lawyer movie

“I’m Not a Miracle Worker, I’m a Janitor”

When my son was doing his economics degree a decade ago at UVic, he regularly badgered me to watch the latest “lawyer movie” he’d just seen. It was Ridley Scott’s “The Counsellor.” The film chronicles a lawyer mixed up with Mexican drug lords, and involves deceit, money, murder, sex, and decapitations. After watching it, I told him it was a dark, dangerous, and gory film, but at times, philosophical and cerebral. Always the jokester, he said the whole thing was a big practical joke on me, and that it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. Not liking my puns, he said I wasn’t allowed to describe a movie as “cerebral” anymore, especially if it had decapitations.

That begs the question. Are there any good lawyer movies out there? Obviously, everyone has their favourite. 1997s “The Devil’s Advocate” lost me when it became clear that Al Pacino was The Devil. I learned from Tom Cruise’s 1993 “The Firm” that it’s mail fraud if you premium an account! (Who knew?) Having taught ethics at a law school since 2015, “The Paper Chase” is one of my all-time favourites. “Legally Blonde” is another “Law School” movie but it’s as authentic as “Spaceballs.” I liked Aaron Sorkin’s film about the Chicago 7 (particularly Sacha Baron Cohen’s courtroom scenes). I never liked 1979s Kramer versus Kramer because, at the time, my parents were going through a divorce. “Anatomy of a Murder” is a classic, especially when Jimmy Stewart provides four defences to murder and asks the defendant which category he falls into.

But my favourite is still Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” where George Clooney plays a Manhattan lawyer who does more “fixing” than “lawyering” while struggling with a bad business investment, a gambling problem, a divorce, a young son, a firm merger, three horses who save his sanity (and his life), and a partner at the firm who, in the process of a mental breakdown, realizes that he and his law firm are defending evil. Here, evil isn’t a Bond villain or Osama Bin Laden. Here, it is an agri-business client whose weedkiller is also killing farmers, whose CEO is trying to cover it up, and whose obsequious in-house lawyer (Tilda Swinton) will do anything (including murder) to put her client’s darkest interests ahead of her own ethical duties.

It has some of the best lines in lawyer movies. Clooney’s character tells an obnoxious client who committed a hit-and-run and expects him to perform a miracle: “There’s no play here. There’s no angle. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.” After a failed attempt on his life orchestrated by Swinton’s ethically challenged corporate counsel, he says: “I’m not the guy you kill. I’m the guy you buy.” When he tells his boss that their firm is on the wrong side of the herbicide-kills-farmers file, Sydney Pollock, (as the managing partner), admits the client’s liability and says: “This is news? The case reeked from Day One. I’ve got to tell you how we pay the rent here?” In other words, it was in client’s interest as much as the firms to delay and obfuscate; churning the fees while the plaintiffs eventually gave up or died.

The movie has become such a classic that James Parker of The Atlantic re-reviewed it 10 years after its release and mentioned another character lurking in the foreground: “Evil.” Comparing the movie with The Devil’s Advocate, he says: “there’s no lively, twinkling Satan/Pacino in Michael Clayton, no CIA master villain. Evil is not an active principle in this universe; it is a sluggish compound of evasion, appetite, and self-interest. It gathers around your ankles.

In real life, Evil isn’t as camp and obvious as the Devil or a Bond villain. But when you think evasion, appetite, and self-interest are starting to gather around your ankles, you should probably watch Michael Clayton again.

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