The auteur understands, at least instinctively, that the most vulnerable players in the new economy are
not the front-line workers, but the middle
managers. Most of the highly compensated low-level jobs began to disappear when
manufacturing started to leave North America. In the old
manufacturing economy, those assembly line guys were in highly vulnerable
positions during economic downturns because they got paid more than their potential replacements. They
needed unions and government intervention to make sure they were not replaced
arbitrarily. In our new society filled with McJobs, however, the lowest level
employees are completely safe from arbitrary layoffs.
7-Eleven can't eliminate the clerks of they want to keep their doors open. The
night shift guy can probably
keep that job for life, if he wants it. He only needs to make a
reasonable effort and not steal anything. Nor does he have to fear a younger
guy coming along to do the job better and cheaper. The wages are already so low that
the employers can't save money by firing the existing employees and hiring
cheaper ones. Even if they wanted to, there are not
battalions of people standing in line for those jobs, even during a recession.
Similarly, the very highest corporate levels are also safe from layoffs. The CEO's and CFO's jobs
can't be eliminated, and a company can't even
survive without good men in those seats.
But everyone else's job is vulnerable.
To the extent that The Company Men concentrates on the lives of
newly-unemployed middle managers, the film is on very solid ground. It has
identified the right victims of the new economy, and it has presented the
struggles of those executives in a manner that is both effective and
realistic. I can attest to that, because I once went through the same thing
that the Ben Affleck character went through in this film. One day I was one of
my company's superstars and the next day I was unemployed, despite supporters
at the highest levels of the corporation. The
writer/director, John Wells, really did his homework on this aspect of the
film. The executive outplacement services are portrayed exactly as they really are.
The stages which Affleck goes through are precisely as I remember them from my
experience in his shoes.
Where the film fails is on the other side of the equation. The auteur
succumbs to the temptation to portray the firm's CEO as a callous, greedy
character who is not substantially more dimensional than Mr. Burns on The
Simpsons. I know three CEOs of large companies, and they are all
intelligent, thoughtful and humane. Not a single one of them could play a CEO in a
Hollywood movie. But every single one of them knows that the reason he
has his job is that the value of what he adds to the corporation is greater than
what he takes out in
compensation. There no sense whining about the fact that CEO's make X million
dollars per year. They get that money because the shareholders believe they
can create far more than that. Believe me, if you could convince a company
that you could add $100 million to its market value, they would have no
problem paying you five million a year to do that. In that sense, good CEOs are actually underpaid.
They may bring the company many, many times their salaries in increased profit
and market capitalization. On the other hand, the assembly line worker may be overpaid, especially if he's been around a long
time. That's reality. If he's getting paid $30 an hour, you can bet that there
is a hungry young guy who will do the job faster and better for $20.
In other words, the system sucks for the little guy, but saying that it
sucks is not the same as saying it is unfair. The problem with pure capitalism is
not that it is unfair, but that it is altogether too fair. Employees are
valuable assets only if the company is more profitable with them than without
them, and if there is nobody who can do the same job better and/or cheaper. A
pragmatic evaluation of a company's assets, including its employees, will not consider whether they put in more than they took out in
the past, but simply whether retaining them now will add to or detract from
the company's current and future value. And even if the employees pass that
test today, they may be fired next month if something changes.
Yes, that is greedy. Of course corporations are greedy. We WANT them to be
greedy, because our retirement funds are invested in them, and we want those
nest eggs to be as big as possible. Placing a control on this greed, making
sure that pragmatic business decisions are tempered by the humane and
charitable treatment of employees, is the job of other institutions in
society. The corporation's function in society is to make as much profit as it
can within the rules established by the society in which it operates. It is up
to the government to make sure that those rules are fair to begin with. Yes,
some corporations break the laws, and when that happens, their management
should be punished, but if you have problems with a business which is abiding
by the rules and laws, your disagreements with their practices are not with
them at all, but with the lawmakers who created the rules which allowed and
sanctioned that behavior.
The author of this film doesn't really seem to understand how all of this
works. He rants against senior management, and he fills the second half of the
film with trite monologues which inevitably pontificate about the value of
honest hard workers, the kind of workers who create something of true value:
the farmers who create our food, the carpenters who create our furniture and
shelter, the manufacturers who build our cars, and so forth. All of those
people are marvelous indeed, but we are not going to suddenly turn America
into to some kind of giant Amish commune. The big new fortunes of today are
not generated by the Amish, or even by the industrial giants who used to
employ armies of blue-collar workers, but by Google and EA and Facebook - entities created by people who have devised vast
enterprises which exist entirely in the ether, and who now employ thousands of other people like themselves,
not farmers, not carpenters, not union guys, but guys who sit in chairs and
stare at bright screens all day; not guys who work with their backs, but guys
who work with their brains. That's just the way it is in our
post-industrial world. The big question is this: how can we realistically
create a future world in which the other Americans - the ones with strong
backs and no coding skills - can also have a satisfying non-criminal life when
the value of manual labor is set by the global free market, and is therefore
at a third world level. To my knowledge, nobody has a solution to that, least
of all the author of The Company Men.
If only the author had not tried to deal with the global issues and had
stuck with the personal stories, this would be an excellent film.
Unfortunately, when he tries to reach farther, he overreaches, and turns the
second half of the film into a series of laughably simple homilies which lead
to a facile solution, although the
subject of restructuring a massive economy is actually so labyrinthine that
any workable real-life solution has escaped even the most complex minds.
That's a shame, because if The Company Men had concentrated solely on the
human effects of the
layoffs, which it seemed to get exactly right, it might have been
But it didn't, and it isn't.