Michael Cohen, MICHAEL CLAYTON, and Me: Three Attempts at Redemption

Is Michael Cohen still just lying? QUITE POSSIBLY.

Is he a man who’s done dirty deeds all his life, now feels genuinely bad about it, and wants in some way to make amends? Also possible.

Is the 2007 film MICHAEL CLAYTON (starring George Clooney, written and directed by Tony Gilroy) a romanticized movie version of Michael Cohen’s story, regardless of whether it actually was based on him? Obviously, the names are more than a little similar. (Or maybe the character Michael Clayton is based on another guy with basically the same job as Michael Cohen, or maybe even Michael Clayton is a real person, but none of that is centrally relevant to my point here so I’m not even gonna look it up.)

For those who haven’t seen it, MICHAEL CLAYTON is a pretty good movie. Clooney plays the titular “fixer,” a lawyer who doesn’t practice much law, but rather, specializes in “fixing problems” (i.e., covering up scandals for rich clients) in the employ of a super-fancy New York law firm; his fixing often involves leveraging his relationship with his brother Gene, a well-reputed NYPD detective. I won’t go deep into the rather complex array of problems Clayton has (chronic gambler, owes money to the mob, druggie other brother) but his big Road-to-Damascus movie moment happens when he’s called on to “fix” a problem for the corrupt agricultural-chemical company his firm is defending in a class-action lawsuit (basically, the company makes a weed-killer product that also kills people, and they also hire these scary mercenary dudes to kill whoever finds out that they’ve been killing people). Clayton finds himself with the choice of keeping mum so that he can keep paying his own debts, or blowing the whistle on a murderous miasma of corruption which he knowingly and willingly helped to create.

Not to give away the best shot in the whole movie, but yeah, the U-North assassin squad is pretty scary, even in their shower-caps.

Okay, when I summarize it that way, it REALLY sounds like THE MICHAEL COHEN MOVIE, but it’s not. Because MICHAEL CLAYTON came out in 2007 (Fun fact! Lost the Best Picture award that year to the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and Michael Cohen had his big moment of possible redemption just yesterday, at his public testimony before the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland).

Where to start? “Redemption” is a tricky concept. I mean, I never took Moral Ethical Philosophy of Ethical Morality in college or anything like that, but I’m pretty sure the notion of Personal Redemption is a thing that mostly everyone would like to believe in, for the simple reason that mostly everyone has, at some point, done something  bad. The only person who will never need redemption is the person who has never ever done anything bad, and I believe that person doesn’t exist; that’s why we enjoy the IDEA of redemption, that’s why we go to movies to see Darth Vader throw Palpatine down the shaft, because it so rarely occurs in nature as neatly as it does in fiction.

M. Clayton runs into his estranged brother and gives a nice movie speech to his son.

Then there’s the matter of degree. For me, Donny Trump could rescue an infant from a burning building tomorrow and remain the shittiest person on Earth, but that’s just my bias: the “unredeemable” person or action is another totally subjective concept, because there’s no objective measure of what true redemption is. The redemption problem is compounded by technology, as we’re now in an age where we debate whether to “cancel” celebrities over 10-year-old drunk tweets, we are constantly led down false rabbitholes on our beloved phones, and sometimes we’re so info-saturated we just plain can’t remember what the person did that was so bad in the first place. The simplest (and I suppose the most moral) principle is to say that “redemption is possible for everybody”….but COME ON, IS IT REALLY? That kinda nicey-nice thinking gets you took twice by the same con artist. And in my worldview, there exist truly bad people: our current federal government is full of ’em. Trump. Miller. Secretary of Radio Limbaugh. These people are 100% Rotten Apples. They live only to make other people’s lives bad; and as long as we’ve got all these jails, we might as well #LockThemUp.

Whereas MOST of us are normal people who have done, occasionally or often, a bad thing. And maybe we noticed it, and maybe we were fortunate enough to get away with our sin/crime/shortfall without feeling any consequences.

I listened to most of Michael Cohen’s testimony yesterday, and I gotta say, I heard a guy who has done some terrible shit, but is trying to redeem himself. And I got a little choked up, because the speeches and dialogues and confessions all seemed to be coming from a dramatic script superior to MICHAEL CLAYTON’s, and MICHAEL CLAYTON is a very very well-written movie.

For one thing, Michael Cohen’s obviously much, much smarter than Donny Trump, you can just hear it in how he talks. He chooses his words, he can alternate between thuggish and charming. OF COURSE, HE’S A CAREER LIAR, AND HE’S GOING TO JAIL FOR IT. The difference between him and Donny is, Cohen seems to know when he’s lying and for what purpose. Donny just says bullshit any time he breathes air, he doesn’t even know why.

But the GOP’s flailing attempts to convince us that Cohen is “LYING EVEN MORE NOW” seem squelched by exchanges like this one with Rep, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), in which dude seems very credible, because seriously, how would you make up shit like this?

Note: except for one contextualizing digression about the location of the golf course, AOC uses her time just to ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT PERTINENT INFORMATION. A politician who mainly asks questions. Huh. Imagine that.

Sure, perhaps Cohen engages now in another form of performance, a calculated attempt to appease the Resistance with what it wants to hear, in the hopes of receiving some future mercy. And yet, Cohen probably could’ve achieved that by implicating Trump in…I dunno, one or two crimes/scandals? HE IMPLICATED OUR PRESIDENT IN AT LEAST SIX SEPARATE FELONIES BEFORE LUNCH BREAK. And the hits just kept coming: Harmful crimes and heinous misdemeanors, all done by Trump in concert with Cohen and others. This testimony did not feel like a man running a game. This felt like a man who’s figured out that the game is over, and his only remaining move is to open up the spigot of ‘Fess-Up Fountain.

Which brings us back to the most basic question, (which, in fairness to all involved, probably should be resolved by Facebook poll): Did Michael Cohen, through his actions, redeem himself for the crimes he committed on behalf of Donald Trump?  And we’re only talking about his soul here; not his prison sentence, which he’s still gotta serve.

(One reason I’m a blogger and not a professional journalist is a tendency to bury the lead under at least six paragraphs of peat moss.)

Here’s how the film MICHAEL CLAYTON ends.

He’s just gotta burn some fossil fuel and think about it for a while.

Where’s the “Me” in this formulation? Well, I’ve done bad things too. In that way, I’m just as unqualified to judge another human’s behavior as anybody else. And I hope for redemption. The problem is, again, it’s still totally subjective; it’s much more a movie special effect than a real thing. You can do good and no one will notice it. You can do horrible things and be hugely rewarded. You can try to pay your debts and just keep failing at it, you can try to make up for your mistakes and make them worse. The only thing that can be truly redeemed is a coupon (and even that depends on the expiration date).


The end of Michael Cohen, the real guy, and possibly the end of the Trump presidency.

Except! Elijah Cummings had a few more words to say, off his elegant cuff.

Now those are some closing remarks.

A lot of career white-collar criminals (Trump, Manafort, et al.) are in a chronic debt loop “requiring” them to steal MORE money because they keep having MORE debt, boohoo. There is such thing as a larger debt, not to get too religious-sounding about it. There’s the debt you owe for the privilege of being alive, and anyone, rich or poor. can pay that one off.

May we all get the same chance to receive grace.

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