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 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.