Dozens of movies have been made about the Great Depression, among them the classics It’s a Wonderful Life, Annie, Bonnie & Clyde, The Color Purple and Cinderella Man, to name a few. The decade became a goldmine for stories of triumph, survival and the power of the human spirit. The question is, will the Great Recession get its proper recognition on the big screen?
The Company Men , released in select theatres yesterday, is one of the first attempts to do so (the very first was Up in the Air in 2009, starring George Clooney as a man whose job is to eliminate other people’s jobs), and tries to capture the feeling of America’s recent economic crisis in a narrative drama. The film features an all-star cast of Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner, and tells the story of three men (Jones, Affleck and Cooper) who lose their jobs after working much of their careers as highly paid white collar employees of a shipbuilding company, GTX.
Following the headlines of the 2008 economic collapse and the end of America’s age of manufacturing, the film depicts what happens when employees feel so entitled and attached to their jobs — and so used to the luxury lifestyles that come with them. When they lose their jobs, they lose themselves along with them. America’s manufacturing workers once prided themselves on their loyalty to a company, which repaid them with job security. As we all witnessed in the past few years, that security can vanish in an instant.
The movie follows a predicable plot: Man loses job; man rediscovers himself and what’s important in life; man finds new, more meaningful job. As we come out of the recession, some Americans may follow this heartfelt narrative as well, but in reality, most will probably toil away in lower-paying, less-meaningful jobs for awhile before they’re able to re-navigate a career path that works for them. Employees will have to be retrained, new business will have to be created, and new industries will have to be invented before America recovers — solutions not likely to come from a shipbuilding company.
When Affleck, the main character, hears the rehearsed human resources lines, “company is consolidating divisions” and “redundancies surfacing,” he’s initially in denial, refusing to change his extravagant lifestyle or tell his children and neighbors about the job loss. He laughs at offers to work for half his previous salary or to work in construction, saying he’ll find a new job in a few days. Then he becomes depressed, and his family “struggles,” though it hardly feels that way.
Affleck’s wife (Rosemarie Dewitt) and children seem to act like the whole debacle is just a minor annoyance. Affleck furrows his brow and attempts to look heartbroken when his son (Anthony O’Leary) returns his Xbox because they can’t afford it, and at one point after Affleck tells his son he lost his job, his son looks up at him with weepy eyes and says, “But you’ll get another one, right?” Both scenes feel forced and fall flat. Maybe Affleck can’t deliver his woe-is-me lines convincingly because he knows he’s averaging a $15 million annual salary.
Tommy Lee Jones plays the overly sentimental president of GTX, who mopes around about the firings and the lost age of manufacturing. He was one of the company’s first employees, and has frequent tiffs with the one-dimensional evil CEO, Craig T. Nelson, about the layoffs. “They were good people, Jim,” he tells Nelson, who replies, “It’s not our responsibility. We work for the stockholders now.”
who can’t afford to be rich anymore.
The film is also speckled with obvious quotes and props to reemphasize the times. “The entire economy is flat, we’re in the middle of a recession,” says Jones. “American heavy manufacturing is dead,” says Nelson. At one of Affleck’s job interviews, a TV blares in the background with a newscaster reporting on the bank bailout, and at another, Affleck’s reading a Forbes magazine showing pictures of the unemployed with the cover line, “Terminated.”
There’s a problem with numbers in the movie as well. Affleck bemoans his loss of a $120,000 salary (plus bonuses), but at the beginning of the movie, we see Affleck leaving his million-dollar estate in his Porsche every morning. He’s a member of the country club, and his wife, the family accountant, reminds him that “eating out and dry cleaning alone is costing us $600 a month.” It’s hard to imagine a $120,000 salary in a pricey Boston suburb going that far. As The Fiscal Times found out recently, a $250,000 salary doesn’t even go far enough.
As much as America feels the strain, the Great Recession is not the Great Depression. Yes, our standard of living has gone down. Our houses might be getting smaller, our spending habits curbed, but most Americans are not standing in food lines just yet, and it’s hard to feel sorry for families who can’t afford to be rich anymore. America, where people used to shop by the truckload, has been brought down to its knees and given a taste of reality. But maybe all along the American dream really was just that: A fantasy that we’re finally waking up from.
What’s really difficult about the current downturn is that not everyone is suffering. The economy is bad enough to knock your neighbor flat on his back. But the rest of the block is fine. Fifteen million Americans are unemployed, but that means nearly 140 million aren’t unemployed. It’s not the Great Depression where there was camaraderie and your neighbors were pitching in to help you put food on the table. What’s hurting the unemployed is the solitary shame, the embarrassment and the feeling of hopelessness when others are prospering. The Company Men attempts to tap into this, and at one point Chris Cooper delivers a touching scene after throwing rocks at the GTX building, saying, “You know the worst part? The world didn’t stop. The newspapers still came every morning. The automatic sprinklers shut off at six. And Jeff next door still washed his car every Sunday. My life ended and nobody noticed.”
Apropos to the theme, the movie’s budget was a modest $20 million, but maybe more investment of time and money wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The movie is a melodramatic flop, and mostly feels like a whiney, spoiled kid who didn’t get his Xbox for Christmas. Timing-wise, America, with an unemployment rate of 9.8 percent, doesn’t quite seem ready for a stream of recession movies, and director John Wells admits that when they started making the film in 2008, he assumed he would be releasing it as an historical document, not in the midst of a still-beleaguered country. They’ll likely be many more Great Recession films to come, but hopefully when the economy finally does recover, producers will have more money to invest in them.