In Fall's Films, Return to Those Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear

Directors Pay Homage To the Sophisticated Cinema Classics of the '70s

Tom Wilkinson, left, and George Clooney in
Tom Wilkinson, left, and George Clooney in "Michael Clayton," a legal thriller whose style and tone are reminiscent of some of the classics from the 1970s. (By Myles Aronowitz -- Warner Bros. Pictures Via Ap)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cue the wah-wah pedal and widen those lapels: The '70s are back, at least at the movies.

Jodie Foster finds her inner Charles Bronson in the vigilante thriller "The Brave One," Tommy Lee Jones stars in "In the Valley of Elah" (either the "Deer Hunter" or "Coming Home" of the Iraq war, depending on the critic), George Clooney assumes a latter-day Robert Redford role in "Michael Clayton" and director James Gray retools the famous "French Connection" car chase in the upcoming police drama "We Own the Night." Filmgoers may feel they're in a time warp lately, with movies revisiting what many consider the second golden age of American cinema, if not literally -- they're all set in the present day -- then in style and sentiment.

For Tony Gilroy, at least, the nod back is a bow of homage. Gilroy, 50, who wrote and directed the legal thriller "Michael Clayton," came of cinematic age in Boston during the 1970s, when the city was filled with art houses and repertory theaters where he would occasionally take in two double features a day. "Everything I think about movies comes from that," he explains during a recent visit to Washington. "Michael Clayton," which marks Gilroy's directorial debut, has been greeted with universal admiration from critics, who compare its taut pacing, sophisticated dialogue and somber, adult tone to such '70s classics as "Three Days of the Condor" and "Network."

As subtle and unflashy as "Michael Clayton" is, it feels both nostalgic and incredibly fresh, reminding viewers that movies weren't always about fireballs, flatulence and merch-friendly franchises. Many viewers will no doubt walk out of "Michael Clayton" not just puzzling over its plot twists, but wondering why so many movies in the '70s were this good, and why so few today are. "The audience [then] was tuned up for that kind of movie," Gilroy says. "That's what people expected when they went to the movies."

Gilroy chalks the '70s heyday up to two forces dovetailing to fortuitous effect. "As you're coming out of the '60s, everything's up for grabs," he explains, referring to the cultural and political ferment that found expression in Hollywood in the 1970s, from the antiwar allegorical satire "M*A*S*H" to such laconic, often provocative urban thrillers as "The French Connection," "Klute," "All the President's Men" and "Taxi Driver."

As often as not, the people behind the era's most iconic films -- screenwriter Paddy Chayefksy, directors Arthur Penn, Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet -- had come from working in live television, and that medium's combined sense of mastery and spontaneity was carried over to the big screen. "You have all the best people -- top writers, top actors, top cinematographers," Gilroy says. "All these people in their prime, who are really tuned up and good at what they do, working on material that has some ambiguity and complexity to it."

Today, Gilroy suggests, the themes that drove many of the great films of the '70s -- political disillusionment, confrontational sexuality, moral malaise -- have been relegated to the world of low-budget, and often inexperienced, independents, with seasoned professionals doing big-budget mainstream films. "It's not that professionalism is the key to anything, it just means that the more muscular filmmaking is all going to trying to get paid." (When "Michael Clayton" played at festivals in Venice, Deauville and Toronto this year, viewers were eager to ascribe political overtones to its themes of corporate corruption and whistle-blowing. "I don't see it politically," Gilroy says. "It's about morality, which sort of trumps politics. I call it a soul thriller.")

Because the business model for tough, substantive movies has largely disappeared, Gilroy says, he wrote "Michael Clayton" with one thing in mind: getting a big star interested enough in playing the title character that he would cut his fee and guarantee the movie get made. He found just that actor in Clooney, who like co-producers Sydney Pollack and Steven Soderbergh, has a soft spot for '70s movies. "George is frozen there in his mind," Gilroy says. "It's everything to him."

One of the filmmakers most associated with the '70s golden age, Sidney Lumet, 83, has his own movie coming out in a few weeks. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which is scheduled to open in Washington Nov. 2, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers caught up in a spiral of crime, recrimination and Oedipal drama; its bloody melodrama owes more to Shakespeare than Lumet's own '70s classics, "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network." Still, Lumet sees himself as resurrecting another lost cinematic form. "Melodrama is a much maligned genre," he says in a recent telephone conversation. "And I hope we can bring it back into fashion. I always think of melodrama as the thing we are all capable of that's swept under the rug."

What many filmgoers see as a direct connection with the era for which he's best known, Lumet suggests might simply be a return to mature stories and sophisticated production values that often characterize the fall movie slate. "I think we keep asking for the old days, and therefore missing what good stuff is going on now," he says, adding that with the "silly season just around the corner" there are a number of exceptionally good films now in theaters. "This is a hell of a great release schedule. I look at the pictures that are playing now, I don't know which one I want to see first. There are seven or eight that I want to see. That's a nice feeling, and it's not a feeling I had back in June."

For Gilroy's part, the desire to resuscitate the cinematic values of his youth meant changing habits he's honed over 20 years as a successful screenwriter, most notably of the "Bourne" movies starring Matt Damon. Out with the on-the-nose, direct and obvious, and in with the elliptical, implied and oblique.

"I had to fight a little bit against the things I'm most rewarded for doing," he explains, adding that as a screenwriter "you're really rewarded for buttoning up scenes, you're paid very well for having everything tidy. You don't even know how and why you learn the things you learn, it's sort of positive reinforcement. So a lot of the scenes in this film are the scenes that are exactly not the moments that you put in the other thriller. It's sort of like the bizarro-world thriller, in a way."

Bizarro World or Renaissance, filmgoers can be grateful for it, if only because they get the good movies without the bad clothes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company