The Company Men

The Company Men is a timely but cautionary 2010 tale about well-to-do middle-aged executives in America’s recession-torn Corporate battleground swallowing their pride and dealing with the realities of redundancy.  Bobby Walker, Gene McClary and Phil Woodward (respectively Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, fine actors all) go through stages of fear, denial, reality, depression, suicide in one case and for the remainder an ultimate rebirth after their supposed sinecures evaporate on the back of market expectations for growth and profit at GTX, a conglomerate based on shipbuilding founded by Jim Salinger (Craig T Nelson), who seems blithely unaffected by the unfolding tragedy caused by his downsizing decisions.  His former employees are seething at the injustice of their own expendability, and their faces tell the tale far better than their words.

Like Up In The Air, The Company Men shows that moment of uncomprehending fury when the news is broken, and the outplacement service offered to encourage endless happy clappy positive spirit to people who want to rip the throat out of the senior execs who took the decision, but in this case the pantomime villain is HR Manager Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), McClary’s lover and the one to break to him the bad tidings of his own demise at GTX.

It is the families who have to pick up the pieces, help with the downsizing, dealing with the frustration and loss of self-esteem on the part of their breadwinners (who all seem to be male), especially the truth that the market for well-paid execs is overflowing and that they will not sail into a senior position.  Walker expects to be sorted in a few days, and wants to keep up his image of success with the big house, the Porsche and the Country Club.  It does not take long for his bubble to be pricked, and for those from whom he wants to hide the news to find out he is yet another statistic on the scrapheap.

Worse, that after three months of making endless calls, not one offer has emerged.  In Corporate life, they are dead men, final salary cheques coming around uncomfortably soon.  So the reality strikes home:  they need a job well below their station just to keep going, even a manual labouring job.  Bobby has to work on a building site for his brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner) – the ultimate humiliation.

Regardless of the quality and fine playing in this drama, many a middle manager must have watched John Wells‘s big screen directorial debut with a lump in the throat and a shiver down the spine, wondering how resilient they would prove in the event that their employer chooses to cast aside their years of loyal service at the altar of profitability and the stock market.  It can be a little too close for comfort, but for many it is the elephant in the room – a subject they would rather not think about, and certainly not make contingency plans for that eventuality.

Maybe this contributed to the relatively low box office of what is a well-crafted movie.  I suspect this logic also applies to the critics; consider this from Wikipedia:

The Company Men has received generally positive reviews. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 67% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 161 reviews, with an average score of 6.4/10.

Many critics praised the film for telling a story that reflects the economic climate of the United States in the first decade of the 2000s. Rex Reed of The New York Observer stated the film “does a piercing job of making you feel the dehumanizing effects that losing a job can have on grown men, but it’s more truthful and devastating than that.” Stephen Holden of The New York Times also notes parallels between the 2009 film Up in the Air and praised the performances from Affleck, Jones and Cooper.  Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips praised the cast, but criticized the story, saying that the actual status of the economic climate “demands a tougher, gutsier script.”

While I think Wells did the right thing to make the script understated rather than melodramatic, reading the subtext you feel this is a side of the American dream American critics would sooner not face.  American culture prefers the positive news stories, and while this one has something of a happy ending, fact is that there are very many unhappy endings along the way in real life.

Capitalism sheds skins then carries on regardless, leaving victims in its wake.  Doubtless many remembered the ex-millionaires throwing themselves off buildings after the Wall Street Crash, but the fact is that hope remains and the people affected have to find ways to utilise their undoubted skills to resurface and thrive, which in the final analysis is what The C0mpany Men is about.  We all have to reinvent ourselves at least once in a lifetime, so here are a few examples of how it can be done, and the hurdles you have to overcome to get to that point.  There is life after being a corporate man, but you have to find it for yourself; it won’t land on a plate, fully-formed.

But in the meantime, post-recession the likely ramifications of this scenario are that the loyal middle-managers are likely to be casting one eye on the market than devoting their energies unquestionably to a lifetime employer.  You can imagine what a culture shock this was in Japan, for example, where once obedience to the Corporate dream meant you and your family really were protected for life.  It will take a long time for that degree of faith and trust to be re-established, if ever.

Top marks to Wells for a very fine effort, a movie applying subtlety to good effect but not ladling out blame like a soup kitchen.  He employs a great cast of jobbing actors to fine effect, and if his ambition was to ignite a debate then he sure achieved it.  Would that all movies had this degree of integrity.

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