The Company Men

I shied away from “The Company Men” in 2010 because it sounded too much like “Up in the Air,” the repellent George Clooney vehicle about corporate downsizing. Both films were far more concerned about the unemployed executive than the average factory worker, but clearly we are in a different period than when John Ford made “Grapes of Wrath” (Ford was a Republican).

But after seeing “Margin Call,” another movie about rich white guys losing their jobs, I decided to give “Company Men” a try since “Margin Call” had persuaded me that a decent film can be made about such people. After all, I was a well-paid victim of downsizing at Goldman-Sachs–sort of a three percenter–and I am not that much of a prick, at least most of the time.

I watched “The Company Men” last night on Showtime, a premium cable station (it is also available from Netflix) and can report that it is very good, even if it pulls its punches at the end. This review contains spoilers throughout so if you haven’t seen the film, read no further.

Set in 2009, “The Company Men,” like “Margin Call,” begins with men and women learning that they are being terminated. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is one of those affected. As a sales manager for a shipbuilding firm that is suffering declining profits, he is to be sacrificed at the altar of quarterly earnings reports.

At an executive committee meeting, Gene McClary, a senior vice-president played by Tommy Lee Jones, lashes into the CEO James Salinger (Craig Nelson) for not having a long-term view of the company’s mission and breaking the social compact made with the employees in more prosperous times. He is the same kind of character played by Kevin Spacey in “Margin Call,” a firm believer in the fiction that capitalism is a system that can work for the benefit of exploiter and exploited alike.

Craig Nelson, who is the veteran of a thousand b-movies and television shows, is cast perfectly here. A victim apparently of a coup d’age who I did not even recognize, he has just the right combination of gravitas and CEO imperiousness to lend his character the proper believability.

Soon to go after Bobby Walker is Phil Woodward, a long-time employee in his early 60s who started out as a welder on the factory floor. Chris Cooper, one of Hollywood’s finer actors and an outspoken liberal like Ben Affleck, plays Woodward.

In many ways, I could not help but think of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” when watching this film. Miller, a committed Marxist, understood the depths of the illusions that “company men” (salarymen in Japan) had in the system. In that unforgettable scene between Willy Loman and his boss (who I played in a high school production mounted by Fred Madeo, a radical who taught English there), Willy cries out, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit.”

The same kind of scene takes place between Woodward and Salinger, some months after Woodward’s firing. Woodward pleads with his old boss to give him a job as international sales rep at a huge pay cut. Salinger tells him that he is too old and urges him to retire and enjoy days at the beach or playing golf. When Woodward replies that he can’t afford to, Salinger tells him that is too bad. His Board of Directors would not allow him to hire Woodward for the job. A few days later Woodward locks himself in his garage and turns on his engine to commit suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning, the same way that Willy Loman went.

A good twenty-five years younger than Woodward, Ben Affleck’s Bobby Walker has a lot more going for him it would seem, especially in his own view. As the owner of a Porsche, membership in a country club, and all the other accoutrements of a job paying $180,000 per year, he assumes that things will fall into place. When his wife demands that he sell the Porsche, he reluctantly accedes. Later on, when she stops paying dues to the country club without his knowledge, he is whisked from the golf course unceremoniously. When he confronts his wife about her action, she defends herself by saying that he had refused to drop his membership voluntarily so what else could she do? They needed to pay the rent (they had lost their McMansion) and put food on the table. He remonstrated: without the country club membership, he would be less than a man.

The scenes involving an unemployed Woodward and Walker on job interviews have amazing authenticity—trust me, I’ve been there. These are a couple of guys who despite being on the lowest rungs of the totem pole still expected to be treated with kid gloves. During an interview with an outplacement specialist provided by his former employer, the woman keeps referring to Woodward as “Phil” until he asks her if she knows him. Looking at him quizzically, she asks why. He replies that since they have not been properly introduced, he wonders why she is calling him by his first name.

Walker is even less inclined to suffer such slights. After being kept waiting for two hours by an overweight female African-American interviewer who while sipping on a soft drink tells him that he is probably not what they are looking for, he explodes. He curses her out and tells her to lay off the soft drinks because she needs to lose 25 pounds.

Director and screenwriter John Wells, who has a background as executive producer of TV shows like “The West Wing” and “ER”, understands how people like Bobby Walker tick. The character graduated from Penn State and used his good looks and charm to advance rapidly in the business world. This is exactly the sort of person who would be outraged by an African-American woman having power over his economic position and his racism is palpable.

The film ends on an unaccountably upbeat note. After losing his own job, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) decides to start his own boutique shipbuilding company and hires Walker as his top sales guy. The film ends with them looking out the window on the piers hopefully. This Capraesque touch makes no sense at all since not only did the economic crisis make such a venture unlikely, it also assumes that the U.S. can be returned to its gloried past as a manufacturing power.

Back in 2008 I wrote about my experiences at Goldman-Sachs after the 1987 financial crisis left me in a precarious situation not unlike these characters:

In 1988, after about two and a half years on the job at Goldman-Sachs, I received a zero percent salary increase. I heard through the grapevine that if you didn’t get a raise, it would be a good idea to dust off your resume.

After getting my zero percent increase, I resigned from Goldman and consulted for a couple of years until I crash-landed at Columbia University, where I have been for about 18 years. In my first year at Columbia, I was picking up a coffee and muffin in the Business School cafeteria when I was stunned to see Jimmy Primavera sitting at a table in blue jeans, work boots and a flannel shirt. Jimmy had been the manager of trading systems at Goldman, where he had worked for 20 years or so. Like a lot of Goldman veterans, Jimmy had no college degree and joined the firm right out of the army. Not long after Rick Adam arrived, word went out that they were trying to get rid of managers with last names ending in a vowel. During a job interview at Bear-Stearns, I had run into another manager who had gotten the boot from Goldman and who was there interviewing as well. He was a Greek-American who felt like he had been stabbed in the back. Guys like him and Jimmy used to work 60 hours a week and were gung-ho believers in the firm.

When I asked Jimmy what he was doing at Columbia, he said that he was washing windows and without missing a beat added that he was not kidding. [He had suffered the same fate as the Ben Affleck character.] He told me about the bloodbath that had left him and the Greek-American jobless.

One morning they came in and tried to log into PROFS, an IBM mainframe email system that predated the Internet. If the word PROFS rings a bell, that’s because it is what Oliver North used for communications during the Iran-Contra conspiracy. The Senate Investigating Committee subpoenaed the PROFS tapes and got the goods on Reagan’s boys.

Jimmy and about a dozen other managers and senior employees found that their login wasn’t working. What could be wrong? They soon found out. One by one, they were called into personnel to discover that their services were no longer needed and were then escorted back to their desk by security guards. After they put their belongings into cartons, they were escorted out of the building and put into a long string of town cars and driven home.

At some point, everybody who has been through such humiliating and economically devastating experiences will band together and make the one-percent of America responsible for them pay for their actions. Since the 99 percent is much more humane than the bastards who run this country, we will be much more merciful toward them and will probably adopt the measures proposed by Leon Trotsky in “If America should go Communist”:

As to the comparatively few opponents of the soviet revolution, one can trust to American inventive genius. It may well be that you will take your unconvinced millionaires and send them to some picturesque island, rent-free for life, where they can do as they please.

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