Ben Affleck had a quick and apt response when he learned that House GOP leaders were motivating their troops with a scene from Affleck's movie about bank robbers in Boston, "The Town": the scene in which Affleck's character says to Jeremy Renner's,
"I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people."
Affleck issued a statement saying, "I don't know if this is a compliment or the ultimate repudiation, but if they're going to be watching movies, I think 'The Company Men' is more appropriate."
TV whiz John Wells ("E.R.," "West Wing") made his feature-film writing-directing debut with "The Company Men." It's a smart, compelling account of the impact of corporate downsizing. It's got bumps and blank spots, but it overflows with the energy of a filmmaker trying to make a movie that hits audiences where they live.
Affleck is at the heart of the core story, playing Bobby Walker, a white-collar go-getter who takes a psychic shellacking when he's axed from his six-figure job. Wells surrounds Affleck's character with a bottom-line CEO (Craig T. Nelson), the CEO's guilt-ridden longtime colleague and best friend (Tommy Lee Jones), and a fellow who worked his up from the factory floor to a big office -- and is now put out in the cold (Chris Cooper).
Wells spoke to me from Chicago last winter. For my full interview with Wells, click here
Why focus on a fellow like Bobby Walker, who was doing really well but also over-extending himself even before the bubble burst?
We did a tremendous amount of research. We talked to blue-collar people and women. But the people who were becoming unmoored were men in white-collar jobs. Blue-collar workers have been taking it in the neck for twenty years. Plus, they're immediately sympathetic, so if you focus on them you're speaking to the choir.
The blue collar men were angry and frustrated. But they weren't surprised, because they had been going through this for a couple of decades. And the blue-collar workers had a sense of what they did. "I built that building." "I poured the concrete for that sidewalk." "I put the bumper on that Tacoma."
If you gave them a million bucks the white-collar guys couldn't explain to their kids what they did. When the white-collar guys lost their jobs they lost their things, which was all they had to represent their success. They were unmoored because they lost their sense of value and they didn't know what to do.
When it came to the women -- they didn't have the same experience, because they invariably had a greater support system and a sense of community that was larger than their job. With the men, a lot of them lost their job and lost all their friends, because all their friends were connected to their jobs and they didn't realize it.
Bobby being the perfect example. He's arrogant, and you're hoping for his comeuppance; as you're watching him you're not sure you like him. But through the course of the film you develop empathy for him. No matter what his salary was, he's going through an experience shared by tens of millions of people.
When we were testing the film we'd hold Q&As, and I'd ask how many people went through this experience themselves or had a close family friend who had. Every hand would go up. There's a new reality to the cliche that we coined, "What's the new normal?" We do not have the security we thought. Going to college and getting advanced degrees, then good evaluations, and doing well –- that path is not necessarily going to be rewarded and is not going to result in you being offered another job if you lose the one you have now. It's a pressure brought to bear on everyone. Why did you choose Ben Affleck?
I was a huge fan of his from years ago with "Changing Lanes," which Roger Michell directed; I really loved him in it. Here he's playing someone unlikable at first, someone you're confused about a little bit, someone a little too handsome, a little too cocky –-at times you feel like punching him in the face. Ben can get all those things and still get an audience to feel for his character without making him become too pathetic. When Ben started out, he swiftly became a "young leading man," which is always a tricky thing to be. Now that he's matured, I think we're going to see a lot of great things from him. He's an extraordinarily talented writer and director, but he's also a terrific actor.
Affleck is equally good at real confidence and fake confidence.
Part of the job of his character to put on an act -– the problem for guys like these is that they stop remembering it's part of the job. I knew a guy at one point, an agent I was working with in the TV business, trying to sell me on a terrible idea. I asked him whether he was serious. He said, "I have to believe in this or I can't get up in the morning." Part of the belief that you're infallible and that you're going to take the world by storm and be the Master of the Universe, what Tom Wolfe talked about so brilliantly in "Bonfire of the Vanities" –- that's just confidence. And the system used to build up that confidence. It told people that if they were deserving all good things would come their way. That's not the world we live in now.