Works of art must struggle to be able to say something about major historical events close in time to the events. While the events are occurring, we lack perspective, so movies often fail to give us much insight into our own time periods.
For example, although the United States was involved in escalations in Viet Nam since at least the early 1960s, the first great Viet Nam War movie was 1978’s The Deer Hunter (and to some extent Coming Home from the same year), which came out about three years after the fall of Saigon. Apocalypse Now (1979) came out a year later, but most other excellent movies about the period came another decade later: Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). One of the few movies we remember that was released during the war was The Green Berets (1968), a movie that has a much different perspective than the later movies.
Similarly, we have not yet seen great movies about the events of September 11, 2001. There are capable movies, like World Trade Center (2006) and United 93 (2006), but those movies do not give us much new perspective on the events. My favorite movie about 9/11 is not really about 9/11. Spike Lee’s beautiful 25th Hour (2002) is about a man in his last day before he has to report to prison. But the film is set in New York not long after the 9/11 attacks and does an outstanding job of showing indirectly what New York was like in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
A few movies have had some success showing their own time period. Best Years of Our Lives (1946), while not above criticism, does seem to fairly reflect the lives of American men and their families when the men returned after World War II. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) shows the terror and suffering of the Depression while that economic crisis was still ongoing. But such movies are an exception.
The Company Men (2010), like 2009’s Up in the Air, attempts to show America during the current recession. The film’s perspective is through the eyes of three men struggling after their corporate employer lays them off in massive downsizing. The movie features some excellent actors, including Tommy Lee Jones, Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, and Kevin Costner — who has a small role but almost steals the movie in every scene where he appears. The movie shows how the layoffs impact the men because, like many of us in the modern world, their identities are connected to their jobs. So, they struggle to find meaning in their unemployed states, while also struggling to deal with bills and family relationships.
One may criticize the movie for focusing on high-level corporate workers instead of the many working class women and men who have lost their jobs in the last several years. The movie wants us to feel sorry for Ben Affleck’s character because he has to sell his Porsche after getting laid off, making us wonder if the film-makers are that disconnected to the suffering of most people during this recession. But the Porsche-selling serves a purpose in showing how the character tries to hold onto the various status trappings even as the rest of his world falls apart. Also, I suspect that part of the reason for focusing on corporate workers was to show them directly interacting with the corporate owners who are making the decisions. But there is something too simplistic about the movie to focus on the bosses being evil caricatures, while the other main characters have somewhat predictable story arcs.
Still, the drama is entertaining, and one must give the movie credit for attempting to show some of the human costs of the Great Recession. Although movies about current historical events often fail, we need help in processing the meanings behind those events. While relative failures like The Company Men, The Green Berets, and United 93 are not going to be remembered as great movies about their respective time periods, I am glad these movies were made and that I saw them. In many ways, they make way for the great movies to come by testing the waters and raising the questions that will be addressed later.
A great movie has yet to be made about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, but there have been many more attempts on those subjects than has been made about the Great Recession. And each movie about the wars start to tell us a little more about those events and about ourselves. And because those wars have been around longer than the current recession, there are some good movies on that topic, such as The Hurt Locker (2009) and In the Valley of Elah (2007). So keep trying Hollywood. You will get it.
Conclusion? The Company Men is an entertaining movie. Although it is not a great movie and is somewhat predictable, the high quality acting and realistic story about current events is worthwhile viewing.
What do you think of these movies? Leave a comment?