A year in the life of three men trying to survive a round of corporate downsizing at a major company – and how that affects them, their families, and their communities.
Ben Affleck plays Bobby, the youngest of the Company Men. When GTX, the global transportation company he works for, has a brutal round of downsizing, Bobby is among the first to be cut. In less than 24 hours he goes from being an up and coming young executive making $140,000 a year to a man wondering how he can afford to pay his mortgage and his country club fees. At this point, the average viewer will probably feel Bobby is beset by a particularly upscale version of a first world problem, however writer and director John Wells exactly knows how to take his characters and the audience on a journey.
Bobby’s journey is a slow realisation that he doesn’t understand the essence of providing for his family. His wife Maggie (DeWitt) sees the trouble they’re in before he does. His identity is inextricably linked with his career, so losing his job means a seismic change in his life that goes far beyond not being able to pay for the finer things.
Fear of this fate shakes Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) to his core. Phil is a company lifer who worked up from the shipyard and is now in management. He is in his late fifties and has a wife and college-age daughter to support. Even though he is safe after the first round of layoffs, he makes threats and demands of those higher in the company. His response is that of man who is afraid he will lose everything he worked for.
The feeling of loss and how it can turn a formerly loyal employee against the company is something that concerns Division Head Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Gene is the right hand man to the CEO played by Craig T. Nelson. Gene hates to see what restructuring is doing to his beloved GTX. He is losing friends and feels as though he is betraying those who have been loyal to the company over many years. Unlike the CEO, who sees the process as simply what GTX has to do to keep afloat in tough economic times, Gene sees their actions as ethically wrong.
These Company Men are corporate high flyers who are way above the pay grade of most of the audience. To help us identify with their struggle, we follow Bobby to the outplacement agency paid for as part his severance package. Here he meets other victims of America’s financial downturn. He also gets some insight from his brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner) a building contractor struggling to keep his small business from going into the red.
Writer/director Wells strives to show that the Global Financial Crisis has affected everyone. His film makes statements about many subjects; the emphasis on shareholder benefits rather than employee welfare, the size of CEO bonuses and the amorality of big business. He even has things to say about materialism and masculinity. His time as a producer and writer of television (ER, THIRD WATCH, THE WEST WING) serves him well here. He has many years of experience of dealing in a multitude of plots, themes and characters simultaneously.
The down side of this is that THE COMPANY MEN feels like expensively shot, tastefully mounted television. We are given tantalising glimpses into the lives of some characters like Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) who wields the downsizing axe and a genial former engineer (Eamon Walker) that Bobby meets at the outplacement service, but they end up as thinly-sketched ideas. Wells doesn’t have a season’s worth of screen time to build these subsidiary parts.
Perhaps the harshest thing I can say about this film is to point out its fairytale heart. Wells has crafted a small ‘l’ liberal fantasy about what went wrong with America. Where does second-in-charge Gene McClary develop his conscience about corporate downsizing? It seems rather unlikely that the company he helped build from the 1970s onward hasn’t provided him with many similar ethical challenges. At one point, he speaks to Bobby Walker about the death of the American manufacturing sector; about how America doesn’t make anything real anymore. As a lefty ratbag, I agree with these kinds of political sentiments, but the real problems are systemic and run much deeper than this film is prepared to tackle. Looked at in one light, Walker, Woodward and McClary are victims, but if you are feeling judgemental you can also see these men as perpetrators of the kind of ethics-free business practices that now threaten them.
Recent movies like the feature documentary INSIDE JOB or the Clooney drama UP IN THE AIR deal more realistically with the human toll of just “doing business”. THE COMPANY MEN plays it safe by comparison. However, it is a solidly executed, entertaining film that touches on a number of big cultural questions and employs the talents of some excellent actors to good effect. The audience I saw it with enjoyed it. It’s a feel-good film that harnesses our discontent with those who hold our livelihood in their hands.
THE COMPANY MEN runs for 109 minutes. It opens today in Australia. I rated it 3/5.