What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with
which they toil under the sun? 23 For all their days are
full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night
their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
Mark 8:36-37 KJV
If you liked West Wing, E.R. or China Beach, you should appreciate this one, because it marks the big screen debut of writer/director John Wells. The film is the best yet to show the effects on individuals and their families of the widespread corporate downsizing that has taken place since 2008. The terrific ensemble cast of stars, consisting of Ben Afleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Craig T. Nelson, and Kevin Costner, are supported by top-notch second tier stars playing wives and fellow workers. Those who are let go consist of upper and mid-level executives, all reacting in shocked disbelief, the young ones harboring illusions that they will soon find jobs, and the older ones learning that they are too old and qualified for new ones.
GTX was founded by two college chums, James Salinger (Craig T. Nelson) and Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), though somehow Salinger has become CEO. Growing from a small company that built small ships to a giant publicly owned firm manufacturing large ships, the company employs 60,000. When hard times begin in 2008, Salinger’s answer is to downsize. Gene, serving as the conscience of the company criticizes his friend, who tells him not to do that again in the presence of the board. Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello) in her role as head of HR serves as the company’s axe lady. Ironically, she also serves as Gene’s mistress, providing him an escape from his cold marriage.
Two casualties of the downsizing are Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), having begun when the company was small and now, after 30 years a top executive. A friend of Gene’s, he is let go while Gene is away at a conference. Close to 60, no amount of dying his hair or dropping on his resume his earlier experience is going to land him a position again, other than as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
The second casualty, indeed central to the film, is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) has been making $160,000 a year in the transportation department. Once he gets over the shock, he is confident that he will soon find a comparable position, so he is less than enthusiastic when he joins a group of other fired people undergoing a combination of pep rally and resume/interview preparation. He even thinks that he can still pay for the mortgage, his Porsche, and keep his expensive membership in his gold club in order to keep up the pretense that he is unemployed. He is fortunate to be married to Maggie (Rosemary DeWitt), who is realistic and frugal, and best of all, loving and supportive.
Bobby at first resists the suggestion that he seek temporary emplyment with Maggie’s brother brother Jack (Kevin Costner), who restores old houses. At a family gathering it is obvious that Jack is less than enamored with the high life styles of the corporate world when he raises the rightfulness of GTX’s CEO receiving a salary 700 times that of one of his workers. However, when Bobby finally accepts reality and asks for a job, Jack gives him one—and it is soon apparent that Bobby has a lot to learn about building. During this period Bobby grows in character as well as (somewhat) in skill—he finds work for one of the members of his retraining group. He also rediscovers his family ties, using his new building skills to join with his children in building a tree house. Maggie, gratefully observes, “You were never here before, and now you are.”
For reflection/Discussion Caution, there might be spoilers ahead.
1. What do you think of the following characters? Do you identify with any of them, and if so, which?
Bobby Maggie Gene James Salinger Phil 2. Do you find the depiction of GTX and the problems of the characters realistic? How have you or friends been affected in similar ways? Some have said that this film will not be popular because the public does not want to be reminded of what is happening: what do you think? Is this why the film, despite its great cast, has opened almost exclusively in art house theaters?
3. Jack voices a criticism heard in many places, that it is not right for a CEO to make 700 times as much money as its workers: what do you think? What do you think of the rebuttal that executive salaries must be kept high in order to draw and keep topnotch talent?
4. In the film is CEO James Salinger downsizing. Either his own compensation or in regard to the new building to which he wants to move GTX? From what you have seen, is this typical of corporate executives? For instance, has Wall Street investment and banking firms scaled back their annual bonuses?
5. Do you think that James is in any way responsible for the fate of Phil Woodward? How does what Phil does show that he had centered his life too much on his work? How widespread do you think this is? And dangerous for others too?
6. There is a saying that when God closes one door he opens another: how do Gene and Bobby eventually re-invent their lives?