Social Realism In American Cinema?
It’s quite the surprise when an American film comes along and the climax doesn’t involve gun shots and car crashes. It’s also surprising when the tenor of the whole film is about limitations of people within the society they live. Back in the day of the Soviet Republics, the Russians used to specialise in this terrain dubbed ‘Social Realism’, which happened to be Stalin’s favourite genre of film making. More pointedly, Stalin didn’t like escapist fantasies because he didn’t want anybody to escape from the reality where he was the dictator of the Soviet Republics. Such ideological thinking might seem quaint through the haze of history looking back, but I can assure you many a film maker suffered for the institutionalised love of realism and socialist realism at that. And if I might extend it a little bit, the modern day inheritor of thinking happens to be alive and well in Australian film bureaucracies, thanks to our institutions being modeled on things like MosFilm.
Anyway… ‘Company Men’ is the first film to attempt to explore the effects of the Global Financial Crisis in some social sense. By casting the GFC as the first mover the story manages to cover the lives of people who work for a company that fires them.
What’s Good About It
The film is understated and not terribly stylish. It eschews the kind of style that has become the staple of comic book movies and the story remains decidedly man-size. There are no supermen or people with a special gift who can save the day. The reality inhabited by the character is a great approximation of the kind of thing we have seen around us in the wake of the GFC. There are some aspects that ring hollow, only because it comes from a movie full of stars, but the problems that are wrestled with in the film are genuine problems. And weirdly enough, this is refreshing – mainly because the recent escapist fare has been much too much.
Yet it doesn’t matter for a moment that the film mostly meanders through the lives of these mundane characters. The drama inherent in the situation lends itself to pretty good viewing. It’s a film for adults – not that there’s anything wrong with kids’ films – but this film isn’t interested in titillation or adrenal excitement. It just wants to tell a story that makes you think.
What’s Bad About It
The performances are good. There just seems to be one too many star in there. Kevin Costner as the brother in law with the blue collar house renovation business is just too much in the casting department. I’m also not a big fan of how simplistic the moral framework is about work itself. The film never arrives at the point to question the inherent value placed in work when it works quite hard to establish that maybe the top echelon don’t deserve their big paychecks.
Also, this leads to the principle at stake being rather blurry. If Tommy Lee Jones’ character has such reservations about how the firm is run, he actually has the option to start his own company given that he has the money to do it. This gets glossed over until towards the end.
What’s Interesting About It
First off, I think it’s interesting it got made at all. I thought Hollywood had lost its testicular fortitude when it came to making adult-oriented-cinema (for want of a better phrase). Obviously the GFC is impacting on the lives of even the most cosetted film exec. It reminds one of ‘Sullivan’s Travels’, but without the humour. It feels like Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper really wanted to make a film that meant something rather than any old entertainment fare. It has such noble intentions, and it’s dripping with it from the script through to the performances. One can forgive its humourless-ness.
I know I bagged out Kevin Costner being cast in it, but even he provides a performance that’s busily working towards a message. The film isn’t moving; ironically, the fact these big names are in it, trying to prop it up is more moving.
Anatomy Of Debt-Fueled Prosperity
One of the stranger aspects of the story is actually the finances of the household in the movie. At the start, Ben Affleck’s character Bobby is earning 120k p.a. He’s been the head of sales for 3 years, so presumably he’s been paid something like that for 3 years. He drives a Porsche Spider, which turns out to be leased. His wife drives a Volvo station wagon, which is presumably owned outright. He lives in a big house in the suburbs with his wife and 2 kids, paying off the mortgage. His wife, has no job, but goes back to nursing, just to keep the cash flowing. The redundancy Bobby gets covers him for 3months of his 120k plus 4months support at an employment agency.
What I don’t get is how he doesn’t panic when he unexpectedly gets the redundancy. He gets angry, and then belligerent and insists he will find employment soon; but he simply doesn’t panic about his money situation. instead he resists selling the house and giving up the Porsche all the way, and complains about not having his golf club membership paid. I found that really weird. It’s like watching the finances of a crazy person until I realised that it captured the kind of sensibility about finance that was pervasive at the time the subprime mortgage crisis broke. Bobby isn’t subprime, but he’s in debt to his eyeballs and has stopped feeling it. the film gives you a unique insight into what that’s like.
Myth Of American Manufacturing
The sting of post-modernity, as it were in both America and over here in Australia is that we lament the loss of manufacturing jobs. This film is right in line with the line of reasoning that the greatness of a country can only be shown to be true by the strength of the manufacturing sector it has. All the while analysis has shown that companies that outsource the manufacturing part still retain a great deal of wealth in America or Australia by and large, by doing so. The most poignant argument is that the skills lost would be hard to recover, but you sort of wonder if they were such great skills if they were so easily exported.
None of this aspect of the polemic is explored in the film – it’s simply taken as a given that the hollowing out of industry is a sure sign of decay in industrial America when in fact the loss of low-skilled jobs has not been the real problem of the American economy of the last 30 years. Even 20years ago, Bill Clinton was on the campaign trail, talking to unions on his side of politics saying those low skilled jobs weren’t coming back. America still prospered greatly in the 1990s.
The film does proceed on the assumption that if they could rebuild factories, then the prosperity due to Americans would return, but this makes the ending a lot more empty. Can there really be a future in putting back together the American manufacturing machine, using the reject workers that have been shed? It seems the solution is a lot more simplistic than the complexity of the problem. For every industry that goes into decline, there are things like Apple and Google and Facebook that come out of nowhere and become worth billions. One cannot help but feel there’s something missing from the film makers’ thinking on the subject – but hey, it’s not often a movie allows you to ponder such problems deeply.
The Lies CEOs Tell
Tommy Lee Jones’ character reports to his friend and co-founder of the company, who repeats that the share price is everything if they are to avoid a hostile takeover bid. To this end, the company engages in two rounds of restructuring to appease the investors. Interestingly enough, we see a scene where Tommy Lee Jones’ character Gene has to field questions from fund managers, in a moment of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Of course he is damned for it, but that makes you wonder about CEOs of publicly listed firms.
These guys make a lot of money. If you want to know about the 1% that the occupy Wall Street movement is talking about, these guys are it. And yet, in the context of management speak, they freely present the fund managers and share holders and financial types who hold the corporate bonds as the bullies. They also tell you that if the company doesn’t pay the absurd amounts of moneys, the company won’t be able to attract the best talent to be CEOs, which is a dubious claim. I mention this because in light of the recent spates of shareholder activism, it seems that fund managers are finally being able to exercise the proper power that their shares represent. I mean, really, was Sir Ralph Norris really worth $16m a year? That’s C.C. Sabathia money.
We can always see CC Sabathia’s value in his stat line. How can anybody ever know if Ralph Norris’s work is worth a star Major League Baseball player’s annual salary? Babe Ruth was once asked about his pay being higher than the US President. He responded, “I had a better year didn’t I?”
If you asked Ralph Norris and all these other CEOs with insane millions per annum in salary, they’d tell you they had a good year. But how would you know for sure?
Why People Go Into Business
This was the most interesting question that was half-raised and quickly abandoned by the film. Part of a company’s function is to provide a service or good for society. Why is it then that we feel that none of the big established firms would ever do something for the greater good unless it was out of blatant self-interest or self-preservation? The film comes close to talking about it, but instead of going deeper, the characters stop talking. I dare say they stop talking because the writer runs out of ideas or things for these characters to say, but the film is full of pregnant pauses that then cut to the next seemingly disconnected scene. It clearly isn’t about just the money, but we’re left wondering if that is all there is that makes American society. The film is interesting that way.
If the solution is to build a new company, then why are all these people struggling? Surely you need capital to make things work under capitalism. The disconnect is kind of interesting in this film. Somebody has to take the risk, but the negative results that come from taking the risks don’t seem to land on the people who take the risks. Then again, that is the perfect description of the GFC. In any case it’s an interesting film that way.