You don’t have to be one of the nearly ten percent of the US population unemployed right now in this troubled economy, or even a guy, to relate to the plight of the suddenly jobless white collar males in The Company Men. Because mostly everyone else out there right now is likely channeling nightmares at bedtime, counting dreaded potential pink slips rather than sheep.
But The Company Men is not simply a pity party for the all star cast of corporate suits mostly concerned about holding on to their McMansions, fleet of designer cars and country golf club memberships, while those in the audience may be more stressed out about what, if anything, is for dinner. The vividly and genuinely realized emotions and empathy in this movie linked to loss of livelihood and dignity and the desperation that goes along with it, are universal and jarring, no matter what your designation along the financial food chain.
Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker in The Company Men, a hotshot sales rep at a Boston conglomerate in utter disbelief that he’s let go, ‘fired by my best friend,’ in the midst of the economic crash of 2008. And that other colleagues around him are also being terminated, some deliberately just before retirement so as to deny them pensions and hire younger men at lower salaries – including even his own boss (Tommy Lee Jones) who eventually gets ‘tired of firing people’ anyway – is no consolation.
There’s also the plight of distraught co-worker Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who spent thirty years working his way to the top from a factory job, and is advised that he’s just too old. But that dyeing his graying hair and not mentioning he’s a Viet era vet might help. And leading to his further mental disintegration, is insistence by his wife that he disappear every day with his briefcase during working hours, so as not to embarrass the family with the neighbors about his lack of employment.
And with home foreclosure looming and no viable prospects in sight, while feelings these days like ‘just another jerk with a resume,’ Walker swallows his pride with difficulty so as not to further disappoint his family. And takes a job with his brother-in-law Jack (Kevin Costner), a construction contractor and carpenter.
And it’s among these blue collar workers who derive enormous pride in building homes with their hands and their labor, and who think nothing of sharing their sandwiches with him because he has none during lunch break, that Walker is amazed to discover an astonishing camaraderie and humanity among the low wage men he initially looked down upon. While profoundly humbled in the process. And ironically, at first contemptuous that’s he’s above ‘pounding nails for a living,’ Walker realizes that he in fact lacks the necessary skill to perform carpentry that these men possess.
Written and directed by John Wells, who has scripted The West Wing and ER – the most Emmy nominated television show of all, The Company Men radiates a heart wrenching, stinging eloquence throughout. As when one of the jobless observes, ‘The worst part is that the world didn’t stop. And my life ended, but nobody noticed.’
Yet, beyond a backdrop of the broken shells of abandoned factories and rotting debris spread across the industrial landscapes, there is much hope to be gleaned from this story. In alternative visions and restored values related to what matters most in life, ‘before we got lost in the paperwork..Then all of a sudden, you have all these things that you’re terrified of losing.’
Reflecting on his extraordinary film, Wells has commented, ‘When I was growing up, I worked a lot of carpentry jobs. The older guys that I worked with pointed out all the houses they built. They had proof of something physical that they had worked on, something that they were proud of. They had the power to say, ‘I built that.’ And that’s something we’ve gotten away from in this new economy, and in our everyday lives.’
The Weinstein Company