"The Company Men" was conceived before the Crash of 2008/9 bit hard, but it catches the mood of the times wonderfully: a shipbuilding firm lays off thousands of workers, including many who had been with it since it started, in order to improve its stock value. When a long serving senior executive, Gene McClary (played by Tommy Lee Jones) questions the ethics of this, and of building a prestigious new office building for the Owner/CEO, he ends up being fired too.
The film follows McClary and two other former employees as they struggle with the ease with which the Company to which they have given their all dispenses so readily with their services. Bobby Walker, played by Ben Affleck, is a 37 year old sales exec, reeling at suddenly having to look for work in a competitive market where he is seen as too old: graduate MBAs will work longer hours for less pay than a man with a family. Increasingly frustrated at the lowering of his status as he has to leave his golf club and sell his Porsche, his is not, initially, a sympathetic character - yet he powerfully portrays a man who, having been bought by the Great Lie of self-fulfilment through a company career, is sucker-punched by its inevitable betrayal.
Yet even more betrayed is 60 year old Phil Woodward, who has worked his way from the shop floor up to the Board room. Although older, he has a family to look after and faces immediate age discrimination, with one former work friend telling him he can't recommend him for an overseas job because "I wouldn't give it to anyone over 30." His wife, embarrassed by his loss, forces him to go out with his suit and brief case every morning so their neighbours think he is still working and he spends his days drinking, with predictably disastrous consequences.
The company's sole crumb of comfort is the "outplacement" service provided by a cringeingly over-enthusiastic woman who encourages job seekers to stand and sway to an "I will win!" mantra which she calls gushingly "The Tiger". But it is in this group that Walker begins to find some humble rebirth of a sense of the true value of people - one deepened when he works with his brother-in-law as a construction worker.
The film is something of a human dramatisation of the corporate psychopathy explored in the film and book, "The Corporation" by Joel Bakan. When the $22 million dollars-a-year earning CEO is reminded that the employees he has fired are good people, he retorts coldly and immediately, "We're not responsible to them. We're responsible to the stockholders."
And so it goes, and as each character faces their denouement, the viewer can't help but ask why on Earth anyone could justify a system that so completely messes up people's mental and physical well-being, which ties self-esteem and success so closely to ultimately random employment opportunities. Walker's brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner, notes that the CEO earns more than 700 times the wage of the average company employee and asks,"Is he really working 700 times harder than all these guys spending all day riveting steel next to blast furnaces?"
In the end, though, this is not a movie preaching revolution; without giving away any spoilers, it does nothing to chart either a way, or even a need, to break the cycles of boom and bust, of exploitation and accumulation that are the hallmarks of capitalism. But it undoubtedly leaves its audience perturbed - because this is the world we all live in and, men or women, we are in the end at the mercy of the Company and all the other Companies just like it.