Company Men, The: John Wells Feature Debut Starring Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones

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A contemporary film dealing with our new, harsh socio-economic reality, should be welcome, if it’s grounded in authenticity and if its message is honest.  Thus, it is with mixed feelings that I analyze and review John Wells’ feature directorial debut, aptly titled “The Company Men.” 

The film stars three of the best American actors working today: Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Tommy Lee Jones, not to mention an equally impressive cast of supporting players, including Kevin Costner, Craig T. Nelson, Rosemarie Dewitt, and Maria Bello.

When first introduced, Bobby Walker (Affleck) seems to be living his version of the American Dream: he holds a great, high-paying job, as a twelve-year veteran at GTX, a large manufacturing conglomerate with more than 60,000 employees.  Bobby is the head of a beautiful family, he drives a shiny Porsche, and so on.
But like most workaholics, Bobby has little time for his teenage son, who needs him as a role model. This neglect is presented as an almost inevitable result of hard work.
One morning Bobby shoots a round of golf with some business associates. He is the pillar of confidence, complete with a Porsche and a low golf score to boot. However, moments after winning his match, he loses his job due to corporate “redundancies.” Bobby is in the transportation sector, the lowest performing asset in the
GTX portfolio.
Then one day, because of a calculated decision in a board room, Bobby gets moved down the ladder in American consumer life. It proves to be a humbling adjustment for him to make, forcing him to recalibrate his priorities.
Bobby loses more than his job; he loses status. He loses his place in the American upper middle class corporate hierarchy, and a sense of himself as an important player—or even “somebody.”
Moving into a state of denial. Bobby refuses to let his family, beyond his wife (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) know he has been fired. Initially, he sets off on a job search with bravado, confident he will land on his feet before his severance kicks in.
But things change dramatically and abruptly, when corporate downsizing leaves Booby and his two older co-workers, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) jobless.  
Though Affleck’s Bobby is the lead, the story unfolds from the multiple perspectives of three men. Gene McClary is the number two at GTX. McClary founded GTX with James Salinger (played by Craig T. Nelson). At the start of the story, GTX is at the crux of an important merger and Salinger is trying to juice GTX stock by announcing rounds of large scale lay-offs and closing underperforming parts of the business.
McClary, who has become increasingly disheartened with the direction his company has taken, stands up to Salinger at every turn—until he himself becomes a target. Though living in times of recession, there are more important values in McClary’s world view: relationships with people, loyalty, experience, people working to build something together, so that all their lives might grow. That sense of so-called “business community” is very important to McClary—as a professional and as a man.
The first reel is good in detailing the impact of unemployment on every aspect of the trio’s lives, their lifestyle, relationships with spouses (and women), identities, and personalities.
We get the feeling of how emasculating it is to be laid off, and how many men lie about it or they try to get another job before anyone finds out. American culture is founded on the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can work your way up. The very idea that one day you’re going to move backward, or down the ladder, can be excruciatingly humiliating and embarrassing.
We are led to believe that, for the first time, the three men are forced to re-define their lives as husbands, fathers, and men. The unemployment and the depression that comes with it have an impact on their masculinity, as it’s defined by society’s rather rigid cultural norms.
Through cross-cutting, we see how each man deals—or does not deal—with the problem. Bobby soon finds himself learning a new set of skills, taking a manual job building houses for his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), which does not take advantage of his MBA and white collar skills (best used in an executive boardroom).
It’s at this point that the film become fake and contrived, suggesting that working with your hands—literally—is just as rewarding, if not more useful, that holding a high-power office job.
The film’s preachiness is also expressed in the idea that the only way for Bobby to mature is to fully realize that there is more to life than chasing the bigger, better deal.
Ideologically speaking, “Company Men” takes the easy way out and never addresses the issue of the direct (and indirect) responsibility of these very execs to the economic meltown and severe unemployment.  Though they are members of the social and power elite, Wells treats them democratically as “ordinary” human beings, who go through the ordeal of being unemployed just like any other member of society.
As writer and director, John Wells (the creator of TV’s “ER”) inserts some humor, heart, and pathos, into the proceedings so that the tale does not get too grim and depressing. But the lessons of the film do not ring true and are not compelling enough to convince us that there are always solutions to the new realities of American life.
That said, “Company Men” is very well cast and extremely acted by the entire ensemble.  The combination of the sharp writing and vivid portraiture results in the fac that they do not come as types.
Throughout, the characters and their circumstances are captured in vivid detail by ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “True Grit”).