Film Review from the April 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Company Men, directed by John Wells
This was at first a personal matter for writer and director, John Wells. Having seen his brother-in-law, an electrical engineer, struggle after being laid-off, the plot follows the misfortunes of three executives employed at G.T.X. a major shipbuilding company, whose head honcho, Jim, played by Craig T. Nelson, made $22 million bucks in bonus payments the previous year. “We work for the stockholders now,” Jim reminds his underlings as he prepares to fire thousands of workers.
Tommy Lee Jones is Gene, Jim’s old college room mate who helped him build the company up from scratch. Gene thinks of G.T.X.’s employees as if they were family and it hurts him deeply when he’s required to inform “relatives” their services are no longer required. In an early scene, Jim’s wife requests the use of the company jet, a luxury she won’t enjoy for much longer, to go from Boston to Palm Springs to get in some shopping.
Most of the movie deals with the struggle of 37-year-old hot shot salesman, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck). At first Bobby cannot come to terms with being unemployed, whereas his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie De Witt) suggests selling the Porsche and the house. Bobby is convinced he’ll soon find employment at his old salary of $120 grand a year, not realising there are few such jobs available and the competition for them is ferocious.
We watch Bobby’s gradual disillusionment; being expelled from the country club because he can’t afford the fees, watching the new owner drive off his Porsche and being forced to live with his parents. In desperation, he accepts a job in construction, working for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), who delights in Bobby’s downfall and lets him know it.
There is a surreal scene when Bobby attends a placement workshop, which Wells himself did. The manager has a roomful of unemployed constantly reciting, “I will win because I have faith, courage and enthusiasm.” When Wells asked the manager if she was embarrassed, she replied, “I’m dealing with people who feel like they’ve been in a car accident.”
The finest acting is by Chris Cooper as Phil, a sixty year-old who worked his way up from a welder to the number three man at G.T.X. Cooper takes the viewer right into the heart of a man tortured by insecurity, fear and anxiety. Phil is bewildered by the new and real world he finds himself in. One job placement officer advises him to quit smoking, on the premise that, “The employers don’t want a guy with health problems, it will push up the insurance.” When applying for an international sales position he finds how age goes against one; “It’s a demanding job, I wouldn’t offer it to anyone older than thirty,” the boss tells him.
Though the acting, direction and dialogue are good and the movie absorbing, it doesn’t tell the viewer anything new. By now most unemployed labourers, truck drivers and factory workers, are aware that getting the axe isn’t any easier for the middle-of-the-road managers than it is for them. Whatever bitterness the ex-execs feel is directed primarily at G.T.X. and a little at America itself. Nowhere is there any suggestion there is something fundamentally wrong with capitalism.
A reviewer should not give the ending away, so suffice it to say, it’s capitalist propaganda at its most desperate. Company Men is just another movie that tells its audience, “There’s nothing terrible about the economic system we live under. So what if times are sometimes hard, with faith courage and enthusiasm, things will get better.” In that respect, perhaps the most significant comment is when Bobby glares at the personnel manager, who has delivered the bad news and uses the well-known and delightful, “P.O.” expression. What would be more delightful is when a Socialist majority says that proverbially to capitalism.