Having been involved in a couple of downsizing or merger processes – first as a witness, and in the second as a participant – watching The Company Men brings back a lot of memories. In my first ‘downsizing’ experience, I can remember the day when I was informed by my director that I was safe from the chopping board but that it wouldn’t hurt if I refreshed my résumé. On the day when it happened, some of my colleagues were called into an office where they emerged – one after the other – ashen-faced or crying. Some silently stuffed their personal belongings into a cardboard box while some doing it while sobbing. I can still remember the statement that I made to describe the situation as well: it’s like you are one of the fish in an aquarium and the owner decides to scoop some of the fish out. However, although you feel lucky that you are not plucked out, you have to survive the murky suffocating water. If you can’t stand it and jump out on your own accord, well, you’re just doing the owner a favour.
The Company Men is a movie about the crisis that hit the US economy in the late 2000’s. The story revolves around a company called GTX which started out as a shipbuilding company and later on turns into a major corporation that also deals in a range of businesses. When the crisis hits, GTX is faced with the grim decision of downsizing its workforce – first, by closing a couple of shipyards and then the division itself. Caught in this unfortunate situation is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) who is pictured at the beginning of the movie as a cocky but highly performing senior sales manager. Bobby is fired from his position although he has been in the company for the last twelve years. Not even his mentor, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones) who is in charge of the whole division, can save him. The movie also covers other characters involved in the whole process – the HR personnel, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) who has an affair with Gene – as well as a senior executive, Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) who is also fired and just can’t survive in the cut-throat jobseeker environment. At the end, Bobby is helped by his brother-in-law Jack Dolan (Kevin Costner), a carpenter, who also manages to instill some humility into him.
Although it sounds grim, the movie is a riveting watch – especially for those who have experienced such process, either directly or indirectly. As I mention above, the movie brings back memories – some are cringeworthy, some are just chuckleworthy. There’s a scene in the movie when one of the characters passes a two rows of empty desks after the staff have been laid off. Well, I had that experience when the whole Marketing team in one of my previous companies were subsumed by the team in the other organisation that the company merged with. It was sad and heartbreaking – it’s like passing a row of tombstones, knowing who had sit where and what happened there during happier times. At least I didn’t have to do a group shouting exercise of “I will win! Why? Because I have FAITH, COURAGE and ENTHUSIASM!!!”[roll-eyes] when I did my outplacement service. The movie also reminds the viewer of how ugly corporate life can be with companies enslaved to the shareholders and sacrificing their employees’ welfare.
I’m very blessed that I have survived my redundancy experience pretty intact – I even learn about humility again. Being a performer in a company can make you pretty cocky, and crisis such as this does remind you of your proper place in life. In the movie, one of the characters is asked by his wife to go out everyday with his briefcase and not allowed to be home before six o’clock so their neighbours won’t find out that he has been laid-off. Quite sad, indeed – and unfortunately is a true story for many affected workers.
The movie does take a lighter route towards the end, and perhaps a seemingly forced and fairy tale solution. Some may say that it’s not gritty nor realistic enough – however, as somebody who has experienced it personally, I wouldn’t enjoy a movie that is all doom and gloom. It needs that fictitious and phoney feel to it to remind you that it is a movie after all that you see to entertain you. So, if you are a jaded 30+ office-dweller, go and see this movie, chances are you have had a similar experience already – directly or indirectly. If you are just starting with your career, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, see this movie as well to remind you that you shouldn’t feel too cocky and self-sure that you are safe in your current role. Loyalty doesn’t count thesedays.