By Mark Metcalf Special to Published Apr 26, 2008 at 5:14 AM

Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."

In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with the Milwaukee International Film Festival, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects.

He also finds time to write about movies for This week, Metcalf weighs in on "Michael Clayton."


I watched "Michael Clayton" and really liked it. I have several friends who thought it deserved the Academy Award. Quite by accident, "North by Northwest" was on television the following day. I've seen "N by NW" many times, so I only listened as I washed dishes, folded laundry, and did other domestic chores. Now you know all about my Monday.

As I listened, I realized why "Michael Clayton" is so successful. It is completely self-contained and at its core, its ambition is to be nothing more than an entertainment. Just like a Hitchcock film.

At its center is a man who, because of circumstances beyond his control, is forced to come to terms with his life. He realizes that, in many moral ways, he is a failure, appearances to the contrary, and finally, to his own surprise and ours, redeems himself by making a clearly moral choice.

At the moment of his redemption, he says what should become one of the great lines in movie history. A very stuffy and self assured business man asks him, "Who are you?"

The man we've been living with throughout the movie turns, with a degree of malevolence, and says, "I'm Shiva, god of death," thus paraphrasing J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was credited with fathering the atomic bomb.

George Clooney plays Clayton and he shows as much depth and range as I have ever seen from him.

As in any number of films from the last 50 years, the evil in this film is corporate greed and disregard for the environment and the little guy -- in this case the small farmer. The evil they are perpetrating is kept somewhat vague, but involves food products that we all might enjoy and could be poisoning us, so it raises the requisite fear.

The human face on the evil empire is perhaps the most human face in the film. Tilda Swinton is the lawyer that becomes the spokesperson for the corporate giant in the class action suit against it. We see her most of the time in her public persona, but we also see her preparing that persona in various hotel rooms, practicing her speeches, getting dressed, preparing for battle, always alone, always working, always vulnerable and exhausted, always making the moral choice, albeit incorrectly.

The smartest person in the film is a madman, a Cassandra. Tom Wilkinson's voiceover message to the main character that opens the film and brings us into the world of the film is a high-energy, kinetically riveting monologue about an epiphany, a moment of self revelation, in the middle of a busy New York City street involving human excrement.

It is also a revealing story of a pathetic old man who has fallen in love with a farm girl from Wisconsin and refuses to recognize his own ridiculousness. We shouldn't take anything he says seriously because he is obviously mad and sad, but he is also the most intelligent and the most morally accurate person in the film. And he controls its action.

This is a really good movie-movie. It's a realistic thriller. By that, I mean that I believe it could actually happen. There are very few flaws in the human logic. People don't do things or endure things that people never could in real life. There are a lot of people who are way smarter than I am, but I accept that as an everyday given. There are many contrivances that make the plotting work, such as the book spoken of by a child who is obsessed with an online game similar to "World of Warcraft." The book is taken up by Tom Wilkinson's character and seems to become a talisman for him and a perhaps a clue for us.

Wisely, the writer / director doesn't use it except as a holding place for a more important, yet mundane, clue. Cell phones lose signals, GPS systems go on the blink and a man does not die in an explosion. These are contrivances but the complications of the modern, electronic world give them a logic that I accept. They are also small domestic level distractions that Hitchcock would have enjoyed.

That, and the fact that at the moment when the man should be burned to a cinder he is, for no stated reason, not in his car but walking through a field staring at horses, compelled by something beyond himself, perhaps by nature or perhaps by a childhood memory, but by something that brings a look of wonder and vulnerability to his face and this is the point at which the film becomes great.

The moment with the horses has nothing to do with the plot of the film except that it accidentally allows Michael Clayton to survive and thus to bring the story to its conclusion, but it is a fully realized human moment that gives us hope for some sort of salvation if not for the characters in the film at least for ourselves.

I don't know if it should have won the Academy Award or not. My friend Dan, who suggested I watch it and who celebrates the "I am Shiva" line with his very existence and great joy, thinks it should have. I think it succeeds at everything it sets out to do and some of the others don't. I think it is a very serious minded work, without taking itself too seriously, as some of the others do.

It may be worthy simply because it reminds me of a Hitchcock film without in any way calling attention to itself as such. Tony Gilroy, the film's writer / director has great lineage and he always remembers that story and people come first, everything else is merely at the service of those elements.

Mark Metcalf Special to

Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."

Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.