Posted in Movie Reviews, Observations

The Company Men

With the Mets experiencing their worst second-half collapse in years (and given their history, that’s really saying something), I’m channel surfing more frequently these days. A few nights ago I came across “The Company Men”, which I saw when it was first released two years ago, but which has even greater resonance as the Depression recession continues. As a job search veteran, I can tell you there’s more truth in this movie than in any ten news reports about unemployed workers you’ll see on TV.

The joys of outplacement

“The Company Men” details the experiences of Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) and Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), all of whom are eventually laid off by GTX, a conglomerate headquartered in Boston. Started as a shipyard, GTX is now international, with rail and other transportation divisions as well as a health care concern. It’s now September, 2008, which, I’m sure you’ll recall, was a time of impending financial doom, both domestically and abroad. Faced with these issues, in addition to the slow death of manufacturing in this country and a need to make itself more attractive to a potential buyer, GTX is compelled to downsize.

The circumstances of the three main characters are quite different. Bobby Walker, the up-and-comer in charge of sales and marketing for the shipbuilding division, is the first to go when operations are consolidated. His exit is followed by that of Phil Woodward, who is something of a rarity—he started with the company more than 30 years before as a welder on the factory floor and worked his way up the ladder to executive status. And although Gene McClary is the lifelong friend and right-hand man of GTX’s CEO, it’s obvious that he and his boss now have very different views of how the company should be run. Gene is skating on thin ice, so it’s no surprise when he’s finally let go.

The journeys of Bobby and Phil in the Land of the Unemployed are at the heart of “The Company Men.” Both spend time at the outplacement firm GTX has retained to help them, and the details ring so true—the counselor trying to get some energy out of a room of downsized victims, the initial magical thinking (Bobby’s shrugging off the projected length of a recessionary job hunt with “I don’t think it’ll take me more than a few days”) and the continuously lowered expectations during the search (Bobby’s drive for a VP slot soon gives way to his pursuit of a Regional Sales Manager’s job, then to any open sales position he hears of). But what hits home is the uncomfortable fact that the vast majority of GTX’s laid-off personnel are over 40. As Gene sarcastically notes, GTX makes it a point to throw enough younger employees onto the discard pile to avoid litigation, but this movie makes the strong case that the country as a whole has little regard for the knowledge and experience of older workers.

Unlike so many other films, “The Company Men,” for all its faults (see below) gets the details right—the extreme ups and downs of the job hunt, the empty promises of interviewers, the phone calls that aren’t returned, the financial worries, the loss of self-esteem. It’s all there, along with timely bits we get in passing—the employees whose entire 401k portfolio consists of their employer’s stock (shades of Enron), the anecdotes about relatives laid off two months before qualifying for lifetime benefits and then being rehired at half the salary, no benefits. Of the three men we follow, Phil Woodward’s story is the most difficult to watch, and Chris Cooper gives a tremendous performance in the role. The outplacement counselor who advises him may seem callous, but what she has to say is repeated daily in unemployment support groups across the country—lose all pre-2000 employment from your resume, delete everything that can possibly date you (the years you received your degrees, mentioning combat service in Vietnam, etc.), stop smoking and dye your hair. As she tells him, “You’re pushing 60 and you look like hell. You’re going to have a rough time out there.” And her observations are underscored by Phil’s meeting with an industry friend, who shoots down his bid for an international sales job—“That job requires travelling five weeks out of six. I need someone under 30. If I recommend you, I’d be laughed out of the office.”

At times “The Company Men” shares some of the soap opera slant its writer/director John Wells brought to television’s “ER”: Gene’s affair with Sally Wilcox, GTX’s HR hatchet-woman, is straight out of “Network” (though William Holden and Faye Dunaway made a far more plausible couple than Tommy Lee Jones and Maria Bello ever could); Bobby’s down-to-earth, blue-collar wife is the requisite tower of strength; Gene’s wife, eager to spend $16,000 on a Hepplewhite table, is the poster child for conspicuous consumption; the ebb and flow of Bobby’s fortunes match the changing seasons (laid off in summer, hopeful in autumn, rock bottom in winter, renaissance in spring). On the other hand, the actors engage us from the start, and Kevin Costner, as Jack, Bobby’s contractor brother-in-law, gives his best performance since “Bull Durham.” These two have never gotten along, and Bobby, the MBA who wanted nothing more than to escape blue-collar Boston, is forced to ask Jack for a job months after turning down the latter’s initial offer of employment. Jack does hire him, but he’s no push-over—his performance standards are high and Bobby has to meet his level. Yet after all we’ve seen, Jack’s fairness and fundamental kindness restore your faith in humanity.

Try to see this one, especially if you’re lucky enough to have experienced steady employment during the last four years. It’ll open your eyes to the new reality.

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Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits on an August Afternoon

Jessica Ennis

Along with a fair amount of TV viewers in the United States, I’m delighted not to have to listen anymore to the blather of Bob Costas, at least until the next Olympiad. NBC’s prime time coverage of the London Games was a joke, centered as it was on the creation and perpetuation of athletes media darlings, the vast majority of whom are either swimmers or gymnasts (I’d add beach volley ball players, but Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings truly earned their swan song coverage). I guess you either have to sweat chlorine or be covered in rosin to make the grade. With the exception of Usain Bolt and Lolo Jones coverage, you’d think this past set of Olympic Games had abandoned its track and field foundation unless you tuned in during daytime or caught some footage on-line.

Perhaps somewhat related is how much more jingoistic NBC has become with each Olympiad it telecasts. ABC, which broadcast the games during the height of the Cold War, never shut out coverage based on the nationality of the competition. But NBC’s broadcast priorities appeared to be something like this: the glamor sports, such as swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball and basketball got first nod, and then if there was airtime to fill, they’d go to the sweaty sports, but only if an American had a decent chance of a medal (eastern European athletes simply don’t exist in the Eye of the Peacock). I’m actually being generous here, because track and field, aside from the sprinters, got very little coverage in prime time, as in 2 minutes and out, if that. I don’t know about you, but I never saw men’s or women’s javelin, high jump, shot put, hammer throw, discus (except during the ridiculously brief decathlon coverage) or steeplechase featured in prime time. Devotees of other sports, like rowing and the equestrian events, have gripes equal to mine, I’m sure.

I’m tempted to blast the eternal glorification of the American women’s (what a misnomer that is) gymnastics team, but hey, I figure anyone who takes the wisdom of a teenage girl to heart, as conveyed in close-up on NBC, deserves what they get (And by the way, some of that was not exactly flattering. I’d hate to run into McKayla Maroney in a dark alley). In my opinion, Jessica Ennis, who could have taken it easy and won the women’s heptathlon on points, but instead turned on the burners and finished with the fastest time in the 800 meters, is a far better role model for your kids. Not to mention Manteo Mitchell, who broke his leg during a heat in the 4×400, but pushed on to finish, just to get the U.S. in the finals. Not to mention the U.S. and Canadian women’s soccer teams, who played a game for the ages.

It would be a first if NBC took to heart some of the avalanche of criticism it received as it plans for the Rio games in 2016. But I’m not holding my breath.

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I enjoyed a large portion of what Helen Gurley Brown had to say. She was far ahead of her time in advocating that women could and should lead independent lives, with careers and money of their own. In 1962, the year “Sex and the Single Girl” was published, there sure weren’t a lot of people acknowledging that so-called “good girls” had sex, and not only that, they enjoyed it. And to say in print to single women, “You may marry or you may not. In today’s world that is no longer the big question for women” was even more astonishing in that “Mad Men” age.

When I was in college, “Cosmopolitan” was at the peak of its influence, and despite the fact that we wore our hair straight down to our waists and lived in jeans and boots, my friends and I devoured every issue. Where I came to part company with Mrs. Brown was over her attitude toward sexual harassment in the workplace. She had the quaint notion that any woman should be able to outrun a man who chased her around a desk. Would that it were always that simple. She really had a blind spot where this issue was concerned, and had absolutely no concept of the bullying and twisted attitudes behind sexual harassment, how pervasive it could be and how it could destroy lives and careers.

Nevertheless, I applaud her for being ahead of her time. I loved reading her books—she had a sharp wit and a wealth of experience to share. However, I wished that she, who had such a bully pulpit at her disposal, would have had the wisdom to see that women’s problems on the job didn’t end with the deflection of a forward pass. A major opportunity lost.

Posted in Movie Reviews

The Best Years of Our Lives

Enjoying that beer at long last

It never made “Sight & Sound”s list of the Ten Greatest Films Ever Made (by the way, what in the world were they smoking over there anyway? “Vertigo”!?!), but high up on my Top Ten is that masterpiece of understatement, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler, this 1946 release tells the story of three servicemen returning to civilian life. Unless you’ve seen it, you might think it’s just a feel good film, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Its view is realistic—there are obstacles in life that can’t be wished away, success in love and work is incremental—and the ending, while hopeful, is far from a slam-dunk for any of these characters.

We begin with the introduction of Sgt. First Class Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Capt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Seaman Homer Parrish (Harold Russell, famously cast after Wyler saw him in an Army training film), who are returning home to Boone City, our Everytown USA. Within the first 20 minutes of the movie, they, as well as the audience, begin to understand how much their world has changed. Al, the middle-aged infantry veteran, is confronted with two adults who bear only a slight resemblance to the children he left behind four years ago; Fred, the soda jerk-turned-Air Force bombardier, comes to realize he has nothing in common with his wife beyond their quickie wartime wedding; and Homer, who now wears hook-equipped prostheses in place of the hands he lost, has to deal with how his family, fiancée and the post-war world at large now view him.  Aside from their personal issues, these men find themselves having to cope with a changing American landscape: Fred’s former place of employment is no longer Dillard’s, the neighborhood drugstore, but is now only one retail outlet in a large chain; Al, employed by the Cornbelt Trust Company, is promoted to Vice-President in charge of a small loan department established in response to the G.I. Bill, though his boss obviously looks down on this type of “government handout” to veterans who lack collateral; Fred suffers from the square peg/round hole readjustment dilemma faced by many job-seeking ex-servicemen.

What makes “The Best Years of Our Lives” so great to watch is that it’s so different from the standard Hollywood fare of that era. Despite the love story of Fred Derry and Peggy, Al’s daughter (Teresa Wright), the real romantic leads in this film are Al and his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy). This is a middle-aged couple, married for 20 years, with a bond so solid it could and did survive a four-year separation. We see it in every moment they’re on screen together, from Al’s classic homecoming scene to their whirlwind dance at Butch’s Place (Fredric March’s drunken “You’re a bewitching little creature!” never fails to break me up) to the lovely moment the next morning when they reach for each other. Fredric March (whom you never, ever catch acting) and Myrna Loy have incredible chemistry in these roles, and while he totally deserved his Best Actor Oscar, it’s shocking that she was never nominated for an Oscar at any time during her career, let alone for this role (she did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1991).

While “The Best Years of Our Lives” has its set pieces—Homer’s misguided confrontation with his kid sister and her pals, and later, his demonstration of the extent of his disability to Wilma, his fiancée; Fred and Homer’s angry exchange with the unrepentant America-Firster at the drug store; Milly’s speech to daughter Peggy about the ups and downs of marriage; the extraordinary sight of acres of junked bombers and fighter planes juxtaposed with Fred’s father reading his son’s Distinguished Flying Cross citation—it’s the details that make this a great film. Wyler takes care to delineate the different worlds of these characters within the first few minutes of the movie, from Al’s well-appointed neighborhood to the classic tree-lined street of the Parrish home to the shotgun house on the other side of the tracks where Fred’s father and step-mother live. You remember the fleeting things—Milly’s hash marks on the tablecloth for every drink Al takes at the banquet; Fred’s sardonic “Greetings, brother” to the ex-G.I. sleaze his wife is involved with; the fat cat businessman’s checking into the air terminal with golf clubs while Fred is forced to fly home in the belly of a B-17.

While we’re left with hope (the junked planes will be recycled into pre-fabricated housing units—swords into plowshares, indeed), you’re not quite sure what the future holds for some of the characters. Fred isn’t exactly a safe bet, and you wonder how Peggy, the banker’s daughter, will fare on the other side of the tracks. Although he marries Wilma, Homer’s prospects aren’t even discussed beyond the fact that he’ll be receiving Uncle Sam pay for life, though Harold Russell, the real-life amputee who portrayed him, went on to a successful business career and served a prominent role in AMVETS. This is far from the glossy ending you’d expect from a Hollywood film, and it ushered in the post-war era of uncertainty. The popularity of film noir was straight ahead.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” is a unique portrait of a particular time, and it tells more about the generation that fought in World War II than ten Tom Brokaw specials. It’s got heart, in the best sense of the term, and doesn’t apologize for it. Simply an example of great American movie-making.