The Company Men

Watching John Wells’ The Company Men (IMDB) against the backdrop of the ongoing union protests was a fascinating experience. In addition to the week-long protests taking place in Madison, where workers are fighting to retain the right to bargain collectively, there were solidarity marches in all fifty states on Saturday. In addition, as Frank Rich notes, there have been threats of a government shutdown that would potentially cut off access to food stamps and Social Security checks, while Governor Scott Walker cheerfully chats with a reporter impersonating billionaire David Koch about laying off state workers. Although The Company Men was produced well before these more recent labor crises, it gave the film a startling timeliness, one that makes its relatively invisibility–I’ve seen little advertising for or discussion of the film–a little startling.

Like Up in the Air (my review), a film that has been a frequent point of comparison, The Company Men grounds its narrative in the historical world. While Up in the Air used talking-head interviews with actual unemployed workers interspersed with unemployed workers, The Company Men opens and closes with an audio an video montage of news reports on the unemployment crisis, the bank bailouts, and the stock market, drawing (perhaps overly obvious) connections between the experiences of its central characters and the corporate downsizing.  This conflict is addressed through the psychological experiences of three executives from GTX, an amorphous conglomerate that originated in shipbuilding but now seems to make nothing in particular, while pushing papers across desks in a furious attempt to bump up stock prices before an anticipated merger.  Each of the men belongs to a different class background and generation. The primary point of identification is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a youngish sales executive, who has a high salary, but has overextended himself, buying a McMansion, a Porsche, and paying for expensive country club dues; Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who lovingly built the shipbuilding company and now watches cynically as it loses its manufacturing base; and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a man of working-class roots who rose from the factory floor to become an executive, although he experiences this status awkwardly, his graying hair and bland demeanor coding him as an outsider within the world of high finance.

All three of the characters are unceremoniously fired at various points, and the film traces their efforts to find work–and to regain a sense of lost dignity after being fired and falling short of their role as breadwinners. In this sense, the film becomes an exploration not merely of economic issues, but also of the masculinity crisis that  Bobby, Phil, and Gene face in various ways (a point addressed most effectively by Karina Longworth in her insightful reading of the film).  At first, Bobby is reluctant to allow his wife, a nurse, to take on more shifts and assumes that his job search will be brief. But as the search drags on, Bobby must give up many of the trappings of success and must endure a sometimes humiliating job search, a point underscored by Bobby’s experiences in a job placement firm where bossy (and emasculating) employment coaches direct him in goofy “empowerment” chants, while Phil is forced to endure a variety of humiliations: his wife demands that he not come home until 6 PM to keep up the illusion that he is employed, while a job hunter counsels him to omit any reference to any work before 1990.

At first, I was ambivalent at best about the fact that the film focused solely on the experiences of unemployed (but relatively wealthy) men and that the only prominent female workers were Bobby’s wife, Maggie, and Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), a GTX executive responsible for carrying out most of the firings. Maggie’s work is generally undervalued–her status as a worker is rendered insignificant compared to her role as a wife and mother. And Sally is often just inches away from falling into the stereotype of the dominant female executive who has stolen power away from men (a la Demi Moore in Disclosure). But I think the film is trying to make sense of how these economic changes might be affecting us on a psychological level, and as Karina concludes, it “offers a multifaceted glimpse at what can happen when the connective tissue between a man and his source of income is cut, and rarely suggests that it could be anything less than excruciating to stop the bleeding.”

The film is also savvy enough to recognize that the economic challenges extend well beyond those who wear suits and ties to work. After some time, Bobby reluctantly accepts a job working for Maggie’s brother, Jack (Kevin Costner), a carpenter who hires Bobby as a laborer and then promotes him to carpenter, subtly overpaying him, even though his own business is in some jeopardy. As Andrew O’Hehir observes, the film risks romanticizing working-class production, both through its depiction of Jack as a crusty, salt-of-the-earth guy and through its celebration of the revival of manufacturing as a way out of the unemployment crisis, with Gene lamenting the days when GTX used to build things. But as the aborted stimulus package illustrates, there is some value in building and repairing “things,” in giving our aging infrastructure a much-needed boost, and although the film’s ending is somewhat trite (I won’t spoil the specifics here), it allows us to think about the sterile world of high finance in contrast to the gritty and grubby world of making stuff, a comparison that is spelled out sharply through Roger Deakins’s cinematography.

Finally, to some extent, the film seems to have been implicitly criticized for being “too televisual.” The director, John Wells, has a background in TV production, working for ER and The West Wing, and many of the narrative moves in The Company Men feel like TV storytelling. However, rather than treating this as a fault, I think Wells uses these techniques well in order to crosscut between the experiences of the three or four major characters, in order to build up a consciousness of how the unemployment crisis might be resonating on a psychological level. At the same time, watching the film in the midst of the events in Madison reminded me of the fact that none of the characters mentioned unionization or collective bargaining, and to a great extent, being unemployed becomes an individual, and not a collective, crisis. To be sure, Bobby and several of his friends at the job placement center begin to work together, but they do so for the most part by operating within a system they find to be corrupt without really questioning how that system should be changed.

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