Michael Clayton, Duplicity, and what makes Tony Gilroy's movies so impossible to resist.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 17 2009 7:05 AM

Devilishly Good

What makes Tony Gilroy's movies so impossible to resist?

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Bourne appears isolated, attached to nothing, but invisible tiers of surveillance are stacked around this man: CCTV, bugged phones, hacked mainframes, narrow-eyed strangers on street corners, muttering into their collars. Angels and demons are watching, the good CIA versus the bad CIA, and his every move sets off a chain reaction across the spook world. Poor Noah Vosen, playing a crooked CIA deputy director in The Bourne Ultimatum, spends the entire movie having a shit fit in his information bunker: "What's Bourne doing? Where's he going? Gimme eyes, people! I need eyes!" The noncrooked deputy director, played by Joan Allen, is tracking Bourne too: He is, as it were, both divinely and infernally monitored. As Norman Mailer, that marvelous crypto-Catholic, proposed in a 1975 interview with Partisan Review, "Why wouldn't God and the Devil have their department of dirty tricks? You know, see them as some sort of sublime extension of the CIA."

Duplicity, rather inconveniently for my thesis, is not about good and bad at all. Or rather, it's exclusively about bad: Its main characters, a pair of industrial spies played by Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, live and move and have their being in an atmosphere of total selfishness, total venality. No souls are in jeopardy here, having been discarded long before, and this, somewhat uneasily, is what makes the movie a comedy: Human beings, even lovers, cannot trust one another, ha ha. And the secret formula everyone's scrambling for? The Grail, the great industrial end-all? It turns out to be ... well, you'll just have to go and see it.

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The kingdom of God breaks through in one place in Duplicity, though, and very Gilroy-esquely. A harmless, sentimental travel agent, caught up in the grand scam and efficiently bedded by Clive Owen, gets hauled before the company security officer. In her mind, she was being romanced by a gallant pediatric cardiologist en route to join his team in Africa—now she learns that he was a dastardly spy who only wanted her access codes. She weeps, she is a wreck: "He talked about the children ... about mending their broken hearts. ..." Julia Roberts sits across the table, watching with dead-eyed scorn. But suddenly the woman, through her tears, grows defiant. She doesn't care if it was all a lie. It was magnificent! "He made me feel special," she exults. "Like I was the only one in the world!" Now there's belief for you—faith, or something like it.

D.T. Max, my brother scribe, can you see why I wanted a bit more from you? Gilroy is special. No one else is doing what he does, with his mix of worldliness and indignant virtue. He's written plenty of great lines, but I keep coming back to Clooney, as Michael Clayton, on that bare slope of ground, wordlessly confronted by those horses. For unbearable seconds he watches them, searches them, until at last permission is given: He will be allowed to start again. His face moves in acknowledgement, or gratitude. If he fell to his knees, we wouldn't be surprised. And then, at the bottom of the hill, his car explodes.

James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.