Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:45 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:45 | SYDNEY

The Company Men


Sam Roggeveen


9 May 2011 18:34

Further to last week's post about 'making things', there is a certain romance attached to the idea of manufacturing goods.

This bias is on display in a well reviewed Ben Affleck picture (yes, there is such a thing) from 2010 called The Company Men, which I caught recently. It's a well written little character study about the financial crisis, but it resorts to some clichés about the US economy and has a falsely comforting ending.

Affleck plays a successful senior salesman in a conglomerate that is rapidly shedding staff to cope with the financial crisis (the evil CEO prefers to sack workers rather than sell the company's luxurious new HQ; he's cliché no.1). After getting the sack, Affleck's character is forced to take work as a labourer in a construction company run by his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner) who is cliché no.2, the gruff blue collar worker with a heart of gold.

The false comfort comes at the end of the movie, and here I'll insert a fold, as spoilers follow.

Affleck's erstwhile employer, GTX Corporation, started out as a ship-building company, but has since become an all-purpose mega-corp. Near the end of the film there's a homily from one of the GTX's senior managers (Tommy Lee Jones), who was there at the company's birth but has also lost his job. He reminisces while visiting an abandoned shipyard:

We used to make something here. Before we got lost in the paperwork...Two thousand men per shift, three shifts a day. Six thousand men earned a fair wage in this room, fed their families, bought homes. Made enough to send their kids to college and buy a second car. Building something they could see. A ship you could see and smell and touch. Men knew their worth, knew who they were.

There's a lot wrong with this sentiment, starting with the fact that it specifically excludes women, who are entitled to feel much less nostalgic about that period.

But to return to the false comfort of the film's ending, soon after this speech, we learn that Tommy Lee Jones' character is investing in a local shipyard and has hired many of GTX's sacked staff to run the new business. The last scene shows Affleck's character giving a pep talk to the staff at this fledgling new outfit.

The film seems to be saying that American capitalism has lost touch with its roots ('lost in the paperwork') and needs to find them again by going back to 'making things'. Yet it's hard to take this idea seriously. This fictional new company would probably fall to Chinese and South Korean competition in short order. In fact, that's probably why GTX moved out of shipbuilding in the first place.

The Company Men presents a false choice between what it sees as an older, more honourable form of American capitalism and the morally corrupt new economy. It captures the mood of uncertainty in today's America, yet ultimately it prefers to dwell in nostalgia rather than face the future. As a guide to the shape and culture of the next American economy, The Social Contract Network is a much better film than The Company Men.