by Meredith O’Brien
*Warning, mild spoilers ahead from the film The Company Men.*
I recently saw the new Ben Affleck/Tommy Lee Jones/Chris Cooper film, The Company Men  and it was highly unsettling on a number of fronts.
The movie focused on middle- to upper-levels of white collar professionals who saw their lives summarily upended when they were laid off in order to satisfy the company’s CEO who cared little about those who toiled beneath him on the corporate ladder, he just wanted to focus on his posh new office headquarters – with a special kitchen for the top five guys in the company and a killer view of downtown Boston and Boston Harbor – while he was ordering the firing of thousands of people in a weak job market because he said the company wasn’t “a charity.”
While it’s true that some people may be initially put off by Affleck’s character’s arrogance, by the pampered sense of entitlement several of the main characters exude as they drive their fabulous cars, wear their pricey duds and cross the thresholds of their lovely homes. I imagine some moviegoers might dismiss the concerns of Affleck’s Bobby Walker because he was in stubborn denial and refused to sell his Porsche or cancel his country club membership even when he and his wife were struggling to pay the mortgage.
Beyond the fact that The Company Men concentrates on the fate of white collar professionals who’d “made it” in the monetary sense, there’s something deeper at work here: The film is a meditation on what some are calling the decline of the middle, or in this case the upper-middle class in this current economic downturn.
Take Affleck’s Bobby. He came from a family of modest means, as did his wife Maggie. They both attained college degrees – Bobby got an MBA – and Bobby sought the gleaming brass ring of success. He worked his way up to become a key corporate sales manager at a huge shipping company, which allowed he and his wife Maggie the ability to buy top-of-the-line kitchen appliances for their gorgeous house located in a coveted town and give their children what they want. Educated and trained as a nurse, Maggie had taken some time away from her career to be an at-home mom to their two children.
But when, in the opening minutes of The Company Men, Bobby was summarily fired, their whole suburban, white collar professional way of life collapsed. Maggie was just pulling into her driveway in her Volvo, carrying into the house an iced coffee and groceries in those canvas reusable grocery bags when Bobby broke the news to her. Maggie cut back and went back to work at a hospital, but her salary wasn’t sufficient to finance their affluent lifestyle, the one that she and Bobby had been reared to see as what would be the inevitable fruits of the American dream. After months of failed job hunting, the Walker family had to sell their home and move in with Bobby’s parents and Bobby took a construction job with his salt-of-the-earth, blue collar brother-in-law Jack, played by Kevin Costner.
And it wasn’t just Bobby whose head had been filled with dreams that if he worked hard and essentially spent most of his time working for his company -- while not seeing his family -- that he’d succeed. People who’d started off working at the shipping company’s factory floor, who were there during the company’s humble beginnings, were also jettisoned, their loyalty and years of service sacrificed to please the shareholders.
Despite the fact that the film has a hopeful ending, it stands as a jarring portrait of how the rules of the game have changed. It doesn’t matter how well you do your work or how late you stay at the office, the extra time you log in. It doesn’t matter if your personal story is inspiring in that you, as they like to say, lifted yourself up by your bootstraps. Everyone, it seems is vulnerable in this kind of economy, no matter what kind of college degrees they have hanging on their walls.
So when we listen to our children tell us that they want to grow up to become various professionals and we respond by saying that if they work hard, they’ll be able to achieve whatever they set their mind to, part of me wonders if that’s still true anymore. In an economy where the rug can be pulled out from under you in a flash even after you’ve built a life around a job – where you live, whether your spouse is an at-home parent, where you sacrifice time with family to do well at that job – a raw film like one this doesn’t instill a lot of confidence that there will be many “company men” around to be awarded gold watchs at retirement. And that makes for one terrifying movie.