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Posted: Apr 2 2009, 08:59 AM
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Filmmaker depicts ugly underbelly of corporations
By JAKE COYLE , 03.18.09, 08:15 PM EDT
In terms of movie drama, corporate innerworkings don't compete with those of the Mafia, investigative units and political cabals. As large a role as companies play in life - think of all the morally murky business news already this year - they're usually movie bit players.
But in the two films Tony Gilroy has directed - the new "Duplicity" and his previous "Michael Clayton" - the writer-director has double-dipped into the ugly underbelly of modern corporations. Though he insists the connection is somewhat coincidental, it's not like the corporate well was dry after the first film.
"It's very rich material," said the 52-year-old, who before these films was primarily a screenwriter, in a recent interview. "These are nation-states, these companies. There's kings and there's serfs and there's armies - everything but moats."
"Duplicity," which opens Friday, follows two spies (Clive Owen, Julia Roberts) who work to uncover the innovations of competing pharmaceutical companies. In "Michael Clayton," George Clooney plays a "fixer" for a law firm, who's tasked with controlling a lawyer (Tom Wilkinson) and potential whistleblower in the midst of a breakdown.
Paired together, the films put Gilroy in the company of only a handful of notable filmmakers to turn their eye to board rooms and sleek office towers.
"We did go back to a lot of the same locations," he says. "We've become such connoisseurs of offices."
Early films like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1924) and Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" (1936) were stories about the individual's loss in the industrialized world. Iconic movies about the modern corporation include Sidney Lumet's "Network" (1976), which depicted the bastardization of TV news with the onset of corporate ownership. A similar theme played out in the based-on-a-true-story "The Insider," the 1999 Michael Mann movie about CBS and big tobacco.
A number of documentaries have looked at corporations, most notably Michael Moore's films, including his 1989 debut, "Roger & Me." In 2004, "The Corporation" detailed a psychological evaluation as corporations were people - leading to a diagnosis of corporations as psychopaths.
Gilroy also rewrote the script to 1997's "The Devil's Advocate," which - like many films - positions an executive as a villain. In it, Al Pacino plays a lawyer who's literally the devil.
"No matter how big the buildings get or how fancy the suits get, human behavior leaks through everything," says Gilroy, who cites Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960), which shows a boys' network of corporate executives swapping keys to a lair for their mistresses; and the Japanese great Akira Kurosawa, whose "High and Low" (1963) portrays an executive torn between purchasing a company or paying the ransom for a kidnapped child.
In one scene in "Duplicity," rival CEOs Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson physically wrestle on a runway.
Reached by phone amid coverage of the bonuses given to the bailed-out insurance giant AIG, Giamatti acknowledges corporate life doesn't often make it into movies, but exclaims: "You're seeing it now in public life!"
Gilroy directed Giamatti by telling him he originally conceived his egomaniac CEO as a "Ted Turner-type," but pulled back on that a little, suggesting, Giamatti says, "a little bit of George C. Scott in `Dr. Strangelove.'"
"It's an interesting time for this movie to come out," says Giamatti. "In some ways what's happening now underscores the kind of desperation of these guys to grab a hold of whatever they can to get ahead."