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The Company Men

March 29, 2011
The Company Men

For most of us, our job is one of the cornerstones of our identity. It’s what we do, in the world; it’s what we contribute to the world, rather than merely consuming. Even if it’s not, unless we’re independently wealthy it’s generally what allows us to be anything at all. In one way or another, our entire lives are about our jobs. And when they’re taken away, our entire lives are about not having a job; not having an identity; not having a place, or a role to play.

Watching The Company Men, we have a front-row seat to the havoc this wreaks at one company: GTX. It started out as a Gloucester, MA shipyard owned by James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). They used to build things — real, tangible things like navy frigates. Thirty years ago, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) started out on the factory floor as a welder before eventually moving to sales. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) has been there for twelve years, since getting his MBA.

But GTX has grown into a multinational corporation, branching out into health care, infrastructure, and power generation, among other sectors. And as the recession looms in 2009, they feel the crunch like everyone else. The long knives of downsizing are out, wielded by Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), and Bobby is among the first to go.

We watch Bobby break the news to his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt). We watch him grit his teeth and go to a job-placement agency to try to find another job, where he strikes up a friendship with Danny (Eamonn Walker), who is putting his engineering Ph.D. to no productive use at all. We watch him try to keep up his façade as his three-month severance package slips away, forcing him to move back in with his parents. We watch him swallow his pride and take a construction job, working for his brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner).

But Bobby doesn’t even have it the hardest; Phil gets cut in the next round. With two kids’ college tuitions to pay, he’s pushing sixty and not getting any younger. We can feel the humiliation as he gets advice on his résumé: don’t refer to the number of years he’s spent in various positions; don’t mention that his military service was in Vietnam; dye his hair. Demoralized from the outset, he starts to come apart at the seams.

Even Gene isn’t immune, as his whole division is cut out of the company. It’s not as if he’s not going to land on his feet with a generous package of stock options and such, but he can see the devastation all around him, and he knows full well how he’s profiting from it, whether he wants to or not. And we even get a glimpse into Sally’s perspective, as things play out.

It’s almost hard to believe that this is writer/director/producer John Wells’ first step into feature films, after a career as a television producer. The script is inspired; the characters’ experiences feel absolutely authentic. There’s never any one turn of events that feels like a huge shock to the system, but we can feel the awful, crushing reality slowly become more and more apparent along with them. The absurd twists are all too real, and after having survived so much already, what’s one more little disappointment?

The casting is also perfect. I don’t think anyone could pick a better actor than Cooper for his role, nor than Jones for his. Affleck performs like he hasn’t since Good Will Hunting. Even Costner brings a surprising depth to a relatively minor role.

For those who have not been directly confronted with the grim reality of life as a casualty of the recession and the “jobless recovery”, The Company Men gives a candid, intimate view. For those who have, it reminds us that we are not alone; it is not our failure; all is not lost; there is always hope.

Worth it: yes. Required, even.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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