by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
The Company Men, written and directed by John Wells, starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones.
Emmy-winning TV series director John Wells (“ER”, “The West Wing”) brings us a slickly produced film about high-paid “white-collar” workers in “The Company Men,” featuring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper. The film illustrates what happens when a corporation in which workers once felt secure “downsizes.”
Ben Affleck’s Bobby Walker, an operations manager at GTX, a global shipping and ship-building company, displays affability and confidence as he strides into his corner office, greeting his staff. Almost immediately, he discovers he’s been axed.
His boss, Gene McClary (a weary-looking but sharp, Tommy Lee Jones), explains that the company sold some shipyards, making Walker’s job “redundant.” Human Resources head Sally Wilcox (an unlikely Maria Bello) puts sugar on the bitter news, telling Bobby that in addition to his severance package, the company is paying for his job-placement training at an agency.
Humiliated and carrying his personal belongings in a cardboard box through the parking lot, Bobby avoids eye contact with others doing the same. He finds camaraderie with fellow job seekers at the agency, one of whom is upbeat Danny (Eamonn Walker), a laborer, the only Black guy. The head of the agency cheerleads them in slogan-infused pep-talks.
Bobby lives in an affluent community in suburban Boston with his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie De Witt), a part-time nurse, and two children. One of the film’s strong points is that Wells takes his time in allowing the kids to show how their dad’s situation affects them. At a birthday celebration, Walker’s brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner in a humble role), a successful home restorer, offers to hire him, but Walker arrogantly puts him off. Still, he blows corporate interviews and turns down offers that don’t equal the position or pay scale he once had.
The film gives us insights into the personal life of savvy old-timer Gene McClary (who is boffing Sally on the side)—a sense of his lifestyle in the luxurious trappings of his mega-mansion on a lake, the whopping price tag on a table, and his wife’s assumption that the corporate jet is available for a shopping trip.
Chris Cooper plays sad sack Phil Woodward, who has a depressive overweight wife. He, like McClary, rose from a welder to upper management at GTX. But, he, too, has been fired. We see defeat in his face when his daughter asks him for the deposit for a class trip.
McClary is an outspoken friend of and serves directly under GTX’s CEO, James Salinger—beautifully played by Craig T. Nelson as the embodiment of the clueless, emotionless corporate head. His stature in his black cashmere overcoat and swept-back mane of white hair exudes wealth. He does what he does, he tells McClary, because he’s responsible not to his employees but to the stockholders. When their stock loses a fraction of a point, he closes another shipping company and has a list compiled of 5000 more employees to ax. Yet construction continues on a new, multi-million dollar corporate headquarters. And McClary gets his pink slip.
Bobby Walker finally wakes up. He cuts back on personal perquisites, puts the house on the market, and moves his family to his parent’s home in an older part of Boston. Humbled, he takes Jack up on his job offer; Jack also hires Danny on Bobby’s recommendation. Danny says, “If you lose your job, the world doesn’t end.” Sadly, it does for Phil. Director Wells allows his scenes to unfold slowly to a satisfying if not happy conclusion. We watch Phil put his house in order, take out the garbage, close the garage door, get in his car and start the engine.
You almost feel sorry for them. Most of us have been in a similar situation. Still, what have they really had to sacrifice compared to the tens of thousands of ordinary people who have lost their jobs, and small-business owners forced to close their shops? And now, with the economy at its lowest since the 1930s, more and more people are unemployed, their homes foreclosed; and jobless tenants, no longer able to come up with rent, end up homeless.
The film ends on a hopeful note—actually, more like false hope. Having come up the hard way, McClary isn’t about to give up. He starts his own ship-building company, re-hiring a certain number of the laid-off GTX workers. But it will take more than grand entrepreneurial dreams to provide well-paying and rewarding jobs on a meaningful scale.
> This article was originally published in the February 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.