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Michael Clayton

The Contenders

Release date: Oct. 5 Distributor: Warner Bros.

Screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut has become the fall’s most burnished, acclaimed reminder of the conscience-stricken ’70s suspense drama, a tale of corporate malfeasance and its ethics-killing twin — the legal cover-up — seen from the point of view of a law firm’s fix-it guy, played with broodingly intelligent relish by Oscar winner George Clooney. It’s been slowly building its box office stature — more than $33 million taken in so far — and has impressed critics with its mixture of murderous tension and thought-provoking character drama. Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times called it “a crackerjack tale of suspicion and anxiety … that understands the secret pleasures of showing how the powerful operate when they think no one is looking.”

The corruption thriller has enjoyed a long history with Oscar — from Sidney Lumet’s ’70s oeuvre to “All the President’s Men” and this decade’s “Erin Brockovich” — so Academy voters could easily warm to this in the big categories of picture, actor (Clooney, an Academy favorite), cinematography (rich-texture expert Robert Elswit) and director. Gilroy’s chance at original screenplay is maybe the surest bet of all, considering the film’s wise, tough dialogue and nail-biting structure, plus his elevated cachet as the adapter of the successful Jason Bourne films. Other possibilities include indie favorite Tilda Swinton for a supporting actress nom as the corporate defendant’s legal rep, and former nominee Tom Wilkinson as a colleague of Clooney’s with a shaky grip on sanity.

Only helping the film’s case is its relevance to today’s headlines, where boardroom misdeeds have become more commonplace.

See photos, trailer and more on ‘Michael Clayton’

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