Saturday, September 10, 2011

Company Men

We’re perpetually short of films that try to engage with the specific turmoil of these times, which makes last year’s The Company Men worthy of interest (after a low-key commercial release, it’s now on DVD and on-demand). Ben Affleck plays Bobby Walker, a full-of-himself sales executive for a stagnant conglomerate whose job gets swept away in a wave of cuts; he assumes he’ll land somewhere else within weeks, but there’s nothing out there, and he gradually faces up to the need to dismantle his debt-financed life. An equally over-stretched colleague played by Chris Cooper doesn’t even have relative youth on his side, and fares even worse. Further up the ladder, one of the company’s figureheads (Tommy Lee Jones) laments the bottom-line-driven calculations behind this human destruction, therefore sealing his own eventual fate; but he at least has resources.

$160K a year

The film is set a couple of years ago, but nothing has happened since then to make it any less relevant. The actual extent of that relevance, unfortunately, is ultimately less than you’d probably hope for. Writer-director John Wells has mainly worked in network TV, and the film feels like it; it skips along too smoothly for its own good. Conversations that in real life would extend over hours get squeezed into a few snappy lines; characters intercept each other with an improbable grasp of their mutual location and timing; one of the characters is having an improbable affair with the human resources queen who ends up firing him. On top of that, the movie’s pitched too high up the scale for optimum resonance. Even Bobby, the most lowly of the three, is making some $160,000 a year; Jones’ character is so loaded that his wife can drop $16,000 on a table and inquire into the availability of the corporate jet for a casual weekend trip.

Still, this might make you reflect how seldom you glean any actual numbers from contemporary movies, and having the information here makes Bobby’s situation much more provocatively tangible. His $160K a year finances a dreamy looking house, a Porsche lease, fees at a high-end golf club, and as far as we can tell no sense of restraint or consumerist self-denial whatsoever: in other words, pretty much what the standard ideology tells us we’re all aspiring to. But when the money stops flowing – and, just as pertinently, when the access to debt dries up – it all becomes unmanageable with shocking speed (unfortunately, the movie is fuzzier than it might be about timelines - another typical Hollywoodism). If this dream life is only tenuously accessible even at that salary level, then it’s sustainably maintainable only by a tiny minority, which raises the question of why we allow such damaging illusions to retain their prominence in our national conversation. In a nice perspective, Bobby’s brother in law, a down-to-earth contractor played by Kevin Costner, seems shocked he might even be offered $80,000 a year, half his former package.

Executive compensation

The movie contrasts this with a different kind of number talk in the corporate offices; the CEO is fixated on achieving a certain stock price level for the sake of a big merger deal, and because investing to grow the company’s revenue and basic performance won’t get it there any time soon, he inflates the bottom line by laying off employees (there’s little sense that any of these employees might be contributing anything that would actually be missed). No doubt this basic narrative has played out plenty of times in the real world, but The Company Men’s treatment is too cursory to provide much insight into it. It’s common to note how the relative magnitude of executive pay has increased in the last few decades, creating a remarkably privileged and pampered echelon of leaders (an even smaller sub-group of the tiny minority I mentioned above). Apologists for this will say exceptional individuals require exceptional motivations, and that these rewards reflect their contribution to generating wealth for stakeholders. It’s obvious though that many executives get fabulously rich whether investors do well or not, and that the justifications for these practices make no psychological sense (if someone wouldn’t give their all to earn $5 million, then why should you indulge their grandiosity by paying them $50 million?) One could make a good movie out of the deranged practices of compensation consultants, but I’m not sure anyone would believe it.

In yet another predictable touch, Bobby becomes a better person as a result of his experiences, reconnecting with his family, and rediscovering something elemental about himself by taking on some carpentry work for his brother in law. Not that this isn’t a plausible train of events, but it’s a soft take on the trauma that often flows from economic hardship, not least because plenty of families are still waiting for the upbeat ending The Company Men provides.

Internal consciousness

I think it’s possible to argue the general dumbing down of culture and public discourse is particularly regrettable in an era of hardship. The recent attention to the place of libraries in our city cast a light on those institutions as a refuge from difficult home conditions, as access to technology and knowledge and possibility. Many of us were turned off by Doug Ford’s snide comments about Margaret Atwood, but they only emphasized how you can become notable and powerful without ever stepping out of your limited, empathy-free intellectual comfort zone. If society lets us down, maybe the external pain can at least partly be fought by an expansion of internal consciousness. I know, that probably sounds idealistic, if not plain stupid. But even if a perfect set of solutions could be devised and implemented tomorrow, it would still take years to get everything back in shape. It’s not enough just to hope and wait. In the meantime, if life means anything, can’t we at least try to be smarter and deeper and better?

As I mentioned, The Company Men ultimately hints at a way back, through a fusion of rediscovering lost strengths and values and a realignment of personal and financial goals. I didn’t mention that the film is set against the shipbuilding industry, just about the most imposing possible example of an old-fashioned, blue-collar occupation, a symbol of a country that used to make things; in its last shot, it pans across a desolate industrial landscape, evoking the hundreds of workers who would have been seen there in better days, and perhaps hinting at the possibility of their return. Once again though, the film’s analysis of how this might be achieved is so superficial that this last scene might seem like pure cynical opportunism. On the whole, I guess you might give the movie some points for good intentions, but that alone won’t do much to create either jobs or elevated consciousness.

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