Americans, although often characterized as lazy and apathetic, are very devoted to their jobs. People in this country care about their careers, and many individuals work themselves into the ground in overtime, because their commitment to their place of business is so strong. Of course, in the times we live in, whether you’ll even get to keep your job is an open question, and peoples’ very identities often fall into the line of fire.
Enter The Company Men. Written and directed with an even, well-paced precision by TV veteran John Wells, The Company Men explores the demoralizing psychological and economic effects that come with losing one’s job. The story revolves around Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a rising star at Boston-based conglomerate GTX. That is, until the recession forces GTX to make huge changes to certain divisions in the corporation, including large cuts in staff. As Bobby continues to struggle to make ends meet after being fired, things at GTX keep changing, and slowly, higher-ups in the company start to lose their jobs as well. Over the course of one year, the film follows Bobby, as well as older, more established GTX employees Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), as they adjust to the changes in their lives, while GTX just keeps rolling.
Ben Affleck may never be a fantastic actor, but he continues to abolish the idea that he is an out-and-out “bad” actor, giving another solid performance as the conflicted Bobby. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his character is how he is both desperate to find a job as good as the one he’s lost, but almost more desperate to retain the lifestyle that his career has afforded him. Rosemarie DeWitt, as Bobby’s wife Maggie, also gives a fine performance as the woman keeping Bobby in check, and reminding him that being able to pay the bills is more important than looking like a big shot at the golf club.
Tommy Lee Jones is consistent as always, and like Affleck, his character is also deeply conflicted. However, Gene is a bigwig at GTX, and doesn’t have to worry about putting food on the table for his family. Instead, Gene is pulled back and forth between wanting to retain his position of power and not wanting to see the employees of GTX go for want. An affair with the company’s resident villain, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), also adds layers to Lee’s character. Gene is in many ways a morally discerning man, but he’s making his moral judgments from afar, sitting on his throne at the company and sleeping with the very woman who’s been firing GTX employees. This man, who seems content to leave his marriage behind, yet looks down in judgment on those who are bringing such hardship to his subordinates, is a complicated character, but in Lee’s skilled hands he somehow works.
Chris Cooper, as the nervous and crotchety Phil, also does a fine job. Out of everyone, Phil is perhaps most disturbed by the layoffs at GTX. At one point he muses on how jarring it is to lose your job, and in many ways your long-held identity, yet to have the rest of the world keep moving. He is the most extreme of anyone in the film, and yet Cooper makes him wholly believable.
Kevin Costner also shows up as Jack, Maggie’s brother and the working-class answer to all the movie’s white-collar high-rollers. Jack works in construction, and the film occasionally makes it look like doing some good old-fashioned manual labor is the answer to all of society’s problems. Because of this, Costner occasionally comes off as a bit hokey, but ultimately his Jack proves to be a necessary addition to the movie. Hokey or not, Costner’s convincing as a man who works with his hands, and although Jack’s job is presented almost too simplistically as an easy solution, his character is an appropriate change of scenery from the rest of the suits and ties in the film.
Where The Company Men excels the most is in showing the disconnect between the CEOS of American companies and the rest of the work force. Craig T. Nelson, as James Salinger, the head of GTX, is the stand in for a multitude of CEOs and bosses all across America who possess the mentality of “What’s good for me is good for the company.” It’s men like him who have exploited capitalism in the worst way, forgotten the roots of how they actually started in business, and told their peers to either get on board or get out. The idea that the leaders of corporate America can stomp around, like miniature kings and do as they please, firing people not to save the company money but to save themselves money, may slowly be killing us. The problems with American corporate culture are placed front and center in The Company Men, and it’s a better movie for it.
The other thing the film does really well is to show the effects of downsizing over time, and how it impacts individuals in their day-to-day lives. Although some of the problems the characters face in this film feel a bit stock, it doesn’t necessarily make them any less real for many average Americans.
Like Up in the Air, The Company Men imparts important commentary on the recession, and how it’s changing the lives of millions of Americans. Of course, Up in the Air explored this from the side of the people doing the firing, and The Company Men does it from the perspective of those getting fired. Ultimately, Up in the Air is probably the better film, simply for the tough, existential questions that it asks, and for showing that happiness is not a guarantee in life, no matter how hard you try to change yourself or improve your situation. However, both films are infinitely skilled at showing how Americans’ identities are so often defined by their jobs, and how once those identities are tested, it’s important to have loved ones in your life who will remind you of who you are. For this, both films will stand as great records of the recession, as well as all around excellent testaments to what it’s like to go to work in this America.