When I decided to watch The Company Men with Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, I was hoping it might show how crisis can teach us the importance of truly meaningful work in our lives. Or maybe how men who define themselves almost exclusively in terms of their professional roles can learn and grow when their self-perceptions are challenged.
While The Company Men briefly toys with such ideas — Ben Affleck’s character actually shoots hoops with his son in one of the final scenes! — here’s what I really learned from watching this movie:
1. There are “bad” bosses and “good” bosses. Bad bosses (e.g., Craig T. Nelson) care only about the view from their executive suites, their stock options and kowtowing to the demands of the evil Board of Directors to turn a profit; they feel nothing for their employees and ruthlessly cut them loose without regard for their age, years of company service and personal life circumstances. Good bosses (Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Costner) feel deeply for their employees and will even lose their own money to avoid discharging them. They may appear gruff on the outside, but within they have a heart of gold.
2. There are “bad” wives and “good” wives. Bad wives feed off the money their husbands earn and lead shallow lives full of shopping excursions and dinner parties with trendy friends. If their husbands are fired, they regard it as an annoyance that interferes with their social calendar. Good wives (Rosemarie DeWitt) love their husbands no matter what, even if it means losing home, car and social standing. They care nothing for such trivialities because they adore their men and will always stand behind them.
3. There are two, and only two, possible outcomes in life: happy endings, where you find meaningful work and learn the value of your close relationships (Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck), or unhappy endings, where you commit suicide and everyone comes to your funeral (Chris Cooper). Except for the bad bosses (Craig T. Nelson) — they don’t come to your funeral because they’re too busy cashing in their stock options.
In this film without nuance, we are continually discouraged from thinking about complex issues — such as, how are we to create manufacturing jobs here in America when companies can hire workers in Asia to do the job for a small fraction of the price? Instead, we are encouraged to engage in splitting, to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, and to watch the closing credits with mingled feelings of outrage at the ruthless power of multi-national corporations and admiration for our men in white.
Oh, I learned one more thing from this film. There are “good” movies and “bad” movies. The Company Men — despite a star-studded cast of fine actors — is one of the latter.
Photo by Joe Schlabotnik, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.