There was a summer when I was about eleven or twelve when my friend Jacob and I would wake up early—around five or six—and ride our bikes down to Kroger to buy small translucent tubs of chicken livers. These livers would, supposedly, be attractive to catfish. We’d ride down to the disused railroad bridge, the plastic bag holding the chicken liver container swinging from the handlebars. We’d drop our bikes on the grassy hill, walk out onto the wooden pier, and cast our lines, now hooked with cold livers, into the water. This was something we did every morning that summer: buy chicken livers, go fishing, catch nothing. We would wake early to avoid the heat of the day and give us the best possible chance to catch something, anything—and each day we would return home empty-handed.
I don’t think I’ve been fishing since.
* * *
Michael Clayton opens with its strongest moment, a powerhouse of a speech from Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson) that sets up the paranoia that permeates the movie: “Michael. Dear Michael. Of course it's you, who else could they have sent, who else could be trusted?”
This opening scene is comprised of a series of nighttime shots that leads us to a conference room full of beleaguered employees worriedly discussing the state of the company. Journalists are hounding them for more information on this story as it emerges: U-North is allegedly at the center of multiple deaths due to a carcinogenic weed killer. And as we learn later on, Arthur has a memo proving that U-North has knowingly sold this carcinogenic weed killer, is directly responsible for these deaths.
* * *
Marietta, Ohio—where Jacob and I met and grew up—was founded in 1787, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Its most recent claim to fame is being prominently featured in David McCullough’s The Pioneers. Leading up to the Civil War, it was a station on the Underground Railroad. In the basement of my childhood house was a small hidden door that opened directly into a narrow hallway of dirt, culminating in a large square room carved into the earth. There was nothing in this room but dirt and space—no lights or any other way in or out—and we always wondered, but never confirmed, its use in the Underground Railroad. There seemed to be few other explanations for such an odd addition, a secret room with seemingly no purpose.
Marietta is no longer what it once was, though it was never at the cutting edge of progress. It sits right on the river next to Parkersburg and the West Virginia border. It is in this area—called MarPar by residents—where the chemical company DuPont dumped poisonous waste for decades. In August 2001, a class action lawsuit was filed against DuPont on behalf of the 70,000 people in West Virginia and Ohio with perfluorooctanocic acid-contaminated drinking water. DuPont had been dumping tons of the stuff—created in the production of Teflon—in landfills throughout the area, leading to cancer or death for thousands of people.
I had no idea until many years after I moved away. No one spoke about it because of the jobs-producing DuPont plant nearby. There is a collective sense, looking back, of not wishing to bite the hand that fed you. To overlook some sins at the expense of others.
* * *
The titular Michael Clayton arrives late one night at the house of a character called Mr. Greer, who’s in some trouble. In the garage, Michael examines the damage done to the wheel well of Mr. Greer’s car. Through dialogue, we realize that Greer has hit a pedestrian out for a late-night run. Greer gets more and more belligerent, expecting Michael to be able to do anything for him, to just make this case go away.
“I don’t know what Walter promised you,” Michael says.
“A miracle worker. Direct quote. ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker.’”
“I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.”
It’s a point hammered home in scene after scene of the film, but it is perhaps here where we are first greeted with such full-throated pessimism: There are no miracles in Michael Clayton.
* * *
I don’t remember the first time I met Jacob. Looking back on it now, it seemed Jacob had always been around, a ubiquitous presence, always reliable for a scheme or two. I recall discussing—even drawing up the plans for—a tunnel we’d dig between our houses. We never followed through—it was, as many childhood plans are, never intended to be acted upon—but it would follow the circuitous path of the rural roads, either side’s entrance undiscoverable and hidden.
* * *
One of Michael’s personal goals in the movie is to take care of Arthur, but Arthur sees through Michael’s attempts and spots the true company man beneath. He recognizes in Michael a certain kind of ancient absolution, the kind that absolves not the personal but the collective, through containment, manipulation, coercion, intimidation. The kind of absolution that requires a scapegoat, on which was placed the sins of the people. “Surely you must have some sense of that—how it pulls together, how it gathers. And there's Michael, the secret hero, the keeper of the hidden sins.”
Arthur seems, for a time, as though he may just pull this off, that what we may be witnessing is another Erin Brockovich story, a David and Goliath narrative where the giant is slayed by the unlikeliest hero. We become acquainted with Arthur Edens and grow to feel his quest is right. One night, after Michael sequesters Arthur to a hotel room, Henry Clayton, Michael’s son, calls to speak to his father but Michael is out and so Henry gets Arthur instead. We are presented with a childlike sense of Arthur, that he has reverted in some ways to an earlier, more innocent, form of himself. We see growth, potential for his future. But then, a few scenes later, without warning, two men enter Arthur’s apartment and silently inject him with some form of drug and drag his unconscious form to the bathroom, where they stage the scene to look like an overdose or a suicide.
And then Arthur is gone, and there is no one to mourn him, not even Henry.
There are no miracles in Michael Clayton.
* * *
Jacob and I grew up, led different lives and fell apart. Not acrimoniously—there was, as far as I can tell, never any friction between us—but rather for the same reasons anyone ever falls apart. Time often forces itself into friendships as a wedge until one day you realize the separation is complete. It requires active resistance against this force to remain friends, especially when you move away—as I did, to college. It was there, during my freshman year, that I heard from my mother that Jacob was in a coma. He had been riding his motorcycle home one night from his twenty-first birthday party when he’d hit the highway divider and gone flying into the grass. His body was bruised, but ultimately—miraculously—unbroken save for one single injury: a broken rib which had punctured a lung. I received updates from my mother on his status for the next few weeks, until his parents gave up hope and took him off life support and he died.
* * *
There is one miracle in Michael Clayton.
It’s toward the beginning of the movie, though if the story were told chronologically it would be at the end. Michael, on his way home from visiting Mr. Greer about the hit-and-run, sees some horses at the top of a hill. For no real discernible reason, Michael stops the car and walks up the hill toward them. The three horses stand still in the foggy morning air until, at the bottom of the hill, Michael’s car explodes. He had been tailed by U-North hitmen who had planted a bomb. Michael escapes because of his childlike curiosity, this brief moment where he became like Arthur Edens, the man he’d been hired to silence. We are given no real reason for his decision, but this is perhaps the most true-to-life moment in the story. This inexplicability, even or perhaps especially of ourselves, surrounds us at all times.
I think about Jacob frequently, have done for many years now. His death has—in my better moments—elevated my view of life, has shown me and reminded me that our existence is short and unknowable in so many ways. The twists life presents seem, at times, to be intentionally confusing. We survive one ordeal only to die in another. Where we expect one outcome, another lies in waiting just out there ahead of us, unseen and unknowable until we’re right up close, can touch it and claim it as our own, or have it claim us.