Politics At The Movies: The Company Man

The Company Men

Directed by John Wells

In 2009, one of the most acclaimed films of the year, “Up in the Air,” dealt with corporate layoffs. It featured George Clooney as a hired gun who is brought in to fire employees on behalf of downsizing companies, and Anna Kendrick as the up-and-coming young firer in the wings. In addition to the basic separation talk, the ex-employees are given packages of re-training and job hunting techniques. “The Company Men” is like a companion piece to that movie, telling the story of one company from the other side of the table, through the eyes of those handling and living with the outcome of such decisions and such programs.

Ben Affleck stars as Bobby Walker, a 12-year veteran of GTX Global Transportation Industries who loses his job in the first few minutes of the movie. He’s also convinced that he’ll only be out of work a matter of days – which of course would make for a very short and uninteresting movie.

Others at various levels of the company’s executive food chain are played by Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones, and Craig T. Nelson. Bobby’s blue collar, general contractor brother-in-law is played by Kevin Costner. As written by John Wells, best known for producing (and sometimes writing) such shows as “E.R.” and “The West Wing,” this is a film with obvious pedigree. Indeed, the previews and advertising campaign is eager to remind you that Affleck, Cooper, Jones, and Costner all have Academy Awards, while failing to mention that only two of them were for acting (best supporting for Jones, Cooper).

That said, this is a well-made and well-acted movie, but it also has the feel of an extended political editorial adapted into a screenplay. This hasn’t worked for other star-studded projects such as “Lions for Lambs” in which Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford joined forces to consider the topic of war.

This time around, what we’re given is an artfully-written but pointedly targeted examination and indictment of modern day corporatism. It’s essentially a fictional version of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” – a film that was also more about corporatism than capitalism. Characters ponder the salary gap between workers and CEO’s, the excesses exemplified by corporate jets and palatial office suites, and how American companies produce more paperwork than actual products – although you also get the impression that for most of them, they haven’t been sweating the details until coming up on the downsizing shortlist.  

We also see the short-termism evident in modern business. While short-termism itself may be a controversial or unpopular term with some, we may need to replace it with ultra-short-termism. In the November 2010 issue of Wired Magazine, in an article about online gambling, a reference is made to a large Wall Street trading firm announcing that its average hold time on a stock is 11 seconds. Where companies once looked towards long-term stability and sustainability of their business models, with a need to ride out rough times, they now look to shed both assets and costs, including people, if that can make the stock price look better overnight, rather than 20 years from now. Our corporate model is such that they would be legally negligent in the eyes of short-term investors, and machines that trade faster than their minders can even oversee, if they did anything else.  

At one point, standing in the CEO’s office and told that the company needs to make the bottom line look better for stockholders, Jones’ character points towards a line of paintings on the wall and says, “Then why not sell the Degas?” In another scene, when told that another round of mass firings won’t break any laws, he replies, “I guess I always assumed we were shooting for a higher standard than that.”

The writing is effective but blatantly heavy-handed. We’re given a company that seems to be symbolic of almost every commonly criticized corporate flaw. We’re also handed uncomplicated characters who exist only to advance the lecture. But the film still manages to depict the major issues, including the outcomes of unemployment that include not just financial instability, but also fear, listlessness, and shame. Although, in those regards, the film probably isn’t bleak enough, and pigeonholes the characters into categories that are perhaps even more dimensionally-limited than they were prior to being fired.

I’ve said this before, but “The Company Men” may struggle in the partisan divide as one side doesn’t feel the need to be depressed by being reminded of what they already assume to be true, while the other side will consider it to be more liberal Hollywood corporation bashing.  

“The Company Men” is a flawed movie, but an interesting and meaningful lesson in business and ethics for the uninitiated. It would be a good starting point for conversation in a family with older children who still sit around the dining room table and actually discuss meaningful topics. And it will likely appeal to fans of the central male actors, all of whom are cast pretty well according to type.  (Opens January 21)

Kevin Costner discussed politics and elections in the July 31st, 2008 issue of Capitol Weekly.

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