If you want to see an excellent, richly nuanced movie about work in modern America, rent “The Company Men.” And if you don’t want to have the plot spoiled in advance, watch the movie first and then come back and read this column.
The film premiered at Sundance in January 2010, had its theatrical release early this year, and came out on DVD in June. Though it was written and shot as the country reeled from the Great Recession, its message about what makes work actually work is still timely today, when many Americans cope with long-term unemployment and many more wonder just how long their own jobs will last.
“The Company Men” follows three middle-aged, white collar employees at the fictional Boston-based conglomerate GTX (not to be confused with a real Arizona-based software firm by the same name). Bobby Walker, played by Ben Affleck, is a top salesman who is dedicated to his family, his job, his golf game and his Porsche, not necessarily in that order. Phil Woodward, played by Chris Cooper, is a mid-level employee who worked his way up from the factory floor. Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) is GTX’s second-in-command. One by one, all three lose their jobs.
Bobby, who stands at the center of this trio, struggles to come to terms with his new position in the socioeconomic hierarchy. While cashing severance checks, he tries to hold on to the outward appearance of success and prosperity. He haughtily spurns an offer of help from his blue-collar brother-in-law and swears at a corporate recruiter who tells him she might have a job for him – in Little Rock, Ark. But his confidence disappears, along with his Porsche, as the months pass. When the checks stop coming, Bobby takes the only job offer he’s got: a position on his brother-in-law’s construction crew.
On its surface, the film is, as an NPR review put it, “a little didactic.” The movie poster tagline is, “In America, we give our lives to our jobs. It’s time to take them back.” With advertising like that, “The Company Men” is in danger of becoming a trite recital of the trope that corporations are evil and true happiness can be found only in a return to blue-collar values. But director John Wells and his cast made a much better movie than that.
In a plotline parallel to Bobby’s, GTX’s co-founders, McClary and James Salinger, played by Craig T. Nelson, face off over the company’s future. Salinger, assuming what initially appears to be the role of the villain, is determined to shut down unprofitable divisions and lay off thousands of workers to maximize value for shareholders. McClary, on the other hand, is struck by compassion, arguing that they should save as many jobs as possible. Salinger responds by putting McClary on the list of those to go.
Thrown out of the company he helped found, McClary decides to start again. He buys one of GTX’s severed unprofitable divisions, its shipbuilding unit, and gathers an ensemble of corporate castoffs, including Bobby, to revive it. They give up their executive perks for a shoestring budget and win concessions from the union to get everyone back to work.
By the end, the film’s message seems to be not that corporations are the root of all that is wrong with this country, but that to make things work we will have to accept change, even when that means sacrificing luxuries we’ve come to think of as necessities. If it’s not possible to make a living as a salesman, maybe it’s possible as a construction worker. If building ships while driving Porsches and paying inflated union wages isn’t profitable, it’s time to see if it can be profitable without those things.
If you want to see Salinger as the villainous CEO who cares nothing about the people he fires, the film will let you, but it also gives you plenty of opportunity to look beyond the stereotype. Besides benefiting his shareholders and boosting his own bonus, Salinger’s tough decisions gave other characters the chance to make their own new, potentially more productive, starts. And if he had not made those tough decisions, some corporate raider would have taken advantage of a depressed GTX stock price to swoop in and make those decisions for him.
We have more than enough caricature in our political and economic discourse. The beauty of “The Company Men” is that, in the end, it is not about good guys and bad guys, but just about guys playing the roles that talent and circumstance have assigned them, and all doing the best job they can.