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Movie Review: The Company Men

The Company Men

In the past, major movie studios used to make interesting films about men and women whose stories and lives mattered. Now they make a lot of garbage like The Dilemma and The Green Hornet, both opening this week and both utterly full of it. While the studios crank out trash, the story-driven and character-driven films are being made by businesses such as The Weinstein Company, which will soon release The Company Men (Jan. 21), the first feature by writer John Wells of NBC’s long-running ER hospital series. The movie is an ensemble character study about work and men, two of ER‘s dominant themes, featuring Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson. Affleck is as bland and disengaged as ever as an unemployed Bostonian, and he is the least sympathetic character in the movie, exploding during job interviews, evading reality, and basically being a schmuck to his colleagues, wife, and kids for much of the movie. When the worst economy in the United States since the Depression takes its toll on him and his fellow workers, played by Cooper, Lee Jones, and Nelson, they all start spewing profanities and falling apart.

Homes, self-esteem, marriages, children, and deeply held values suffer, evolve and are saved in a steady progression by writer and director Wells, who delivers the structure if not always the substance of what work means to man, the theme, intended or not, of The Company Men. Though certain plot points might have been made less abstract and more compelling, and the top businessman in the picture is partly and unjustly played as a villain, the story weaves in and out of the lives of relatively decent Americans who merely want to work and be happy. But the men find that the American Dream they thought they were fostering is increasingly unattainable. Some may rise, some may fall, and each will be played to varying degrees by how he sees himself in his work. Cooper is excellent as a pinched nerve, Lee Jones fits one of his best roles, Costner is amazing and so is Craig T. Nelson in the movie’s best and most layered performance.

The most enterprising man in the movie is a small character, an unemployed engineer friend of Affleck’s status-seeker, who possesses the true money-making, can-do personality that America used to represent. But this movie is not The Pursuit of Happyness, and it does not come close to dramatizing, let alone honoring, capitalism as that marvelous picture does. Instead, this band of melancholy men struggle to get their bearings after awakening from decades of submission to trophy wives and faith in bureaucracy without any thought to nurturing their creativity.

Yes, The Company Men suggests, whether it means to or not, these sad sacks are causing their own problems and the company founder’s last line about how much money one of them made rings true. In watching each man try to reconnect to his ability to produce, while the newsradio drones about failed government program after failed government program, we are reminded that the company (which is after all in business to profit) is made of men and a man must be productive to be of any decent company to himself. The Company Men tries to show us how it’s done. It doesn’t always succeed, and it isn’t as deep as I’m making it sound, but it’s a good throwback to movies about those we care about in our daily lives and, in these ominous times, you should see it with your family, friends, and neighbors.

Carnegie, an Intellectual Capitalist

220px-andrew_carnegie_three-quarter_length_portrait_seated_facing_slightly_left_1913-cropWealthy capitalist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was an indefatigable steel tycoon—and he was also intellectual. His parents, Will and Margaret Carnegie, were readers and thinkers and, though he dropped out of formal education early in life, Carnegie—a voracious reader like his father—would study French, Latin, algebra, and bookkeeping on his own. As an adult, Carnegie, known within the steel industry as ‘the Great Egoist’, would dedicate his first book “To my favorite Heroine My Mother” and regard himself as “a trustee for all civilization”.

Such grandiose ideas were encouraged in a family of radicals. As a child in Scotland, he was awakened in the middle of the night by those who came with news that an uncle had been jailed for holding a meeting that had been forbidden by the government, Carnegie recalled in his autobiography. “My uncle, like all our family, was a moral-force man and strong for obedience to law, but radical to the core and an intense admirer of the American Republic.”

The Carnegies—mother and father, Andrew, and his younger brother, Tom—came to America in 1848, settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carnegie recalled his family’s early Pittsburgh years as formative, noting, “There was not a prouder family in the land. A keen sense of honor, independence, [and] self-respect, pervaded the household.”

On his first job as a young teenager, Carnegie worked in a factory, and he made an effort to spend part of every Sunday discussing and debating issues with friends. Eventually, he left that job when he was hired as a telegraph messenger—and he wrote that he felt emancipated from manual labor: “From the dark cellar running a steam-engine at two dollars a week, begrimed with coal dirt, without a trace of the elevating influences of life, I was lifted into paradise, yes, heaven, as it seemed to me, with newspapers, pens, pencils, and sunshine about me.”

Carnegie’s eagerness paid off and he earned raise after raise in job after job, cashing in on his enthusiasm for enterprise. Carnegie was fallible, too, losing a payroll package while working as a messenger on the Pennsylvania Railroad. After the parcel tumbled off the train, he recovered the package, with help from workers on the line—who chose not to report the loss to his superiors. Impressed by the camaraderie, Carnegie vowed never to judge a man too harshly for making a mistake.

As he acquired knowledge and experience, Carnegie continued to read, study and learn. He staked out clear positions, speaking out against slavery, becoming a fierce opponent, and, despite the fact that he was too young to vote, hailing the nation’s new anti-slavery Republican Party, which held its first national meeting in Pittsburgh in 1856.

Carnegie became more intellectual, priding himself on making advancements for what he saw as progress—linking ideas to the practicality of business. Noting that he was among the first to employ women as telegraph operators on railroads in the United States, he wrote: “[W]e placed girls in various offices as pupils, taught and then put them in charge of offices as occasion required….Our experience was that young women operators were more to be relied upon than young men.”

As he accumulated wealth (Carnegie was rich by the time he was 30), his idealism did not wane in the face of new challenges. While still living with his mother—a domineering influence, by most accounts—the woman with whom he fell in love, according to biographer Peter Krass, became enamored with his railroad boss, Thomas Scott, after Carnegie introduced the two in hopes of gaining his mentor’s approval. Carnegie later met and married Louise Whitfield, with whom he would have a daughter, Margaret, named for his mother.

Carnegie met President Abraham Lincoln, who occasionally visited the communications office where Carnegie worked, during the Civil War. Here, too, he was more impressed by the man’s mind than by his status. Carnegie wrote of Lincoln: “[I]ntellect shone through his eyes and illuminated his face to a degree which I have seldom or never seen in any other.”

Andrew Carnegie’s extraordinary post-war success—in investments, iron and steel—culminated in the sale of his steel companies to banker John Pierpont Morgan. At that point in his career, Carnegie became focused on how to methodically dispense with his wealth—he held that charity is an obligation to donate what one has produced—and devote himself to worthy causes.

Carnegie would establish the charitable Carnegie Corporation (the last philanthropic trust he founded) with what was left of his fortune—about $125 million—to help colleges, universities, technical schools, and scientific research. By the end of his life, he had earned enormous wealth (donating 90 percent of it), and he had done so while pursuing serious intellectual goals, writing books on making money, charity and the life of James Watt, who invented the steam engine.

From youth to adulthood, he had been actively engaged in consuming art and ideas, attending musical parties, playing charades, and performing in informal theatrical productions, which Carnegie saw as “another means of self-improvement.” As a member of the Nineteenth Century Club, Carnegie was surrounded by what he described as able men and women discussing leading topics of the day, addressing one audience after another. The gatherings became so popular that meetings were scheduled at larger venues. Carnegie’s first topic as a program speaker: “The Aristocracy of the Dollar”.

Throughout his life, he was an avid reader, author, and journalist and he traveled across the world in search of a philosophy. In China, he read Confucius. In India, he studied Buddha and the Hindus. In Bombay, he read Zoroaster. Afterwards, he wrote that his mind was at rest. “I had a philosophy at last,” he wrote. “The words of Christ “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” had a new meaning for me. Not in the past or in the future, but now and here is Heaven within us. All our duties lie in this world and in the present,” he wrote, adding that seeking an afterlife—which agnostic Carnegie refused to discount—would be fruitless.

The benefits of his tremendous charitable gifts, such as the exceptional Carnegie Hall, would last for generations. Classical masters, such as legendary New York Philharmonic conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), praised the music hall’s perfection. Toscanini, one of the greatest conductors, insisted throughout his career on playing at Carnegie Hall, where he gave his last New York Philharmonic concert and his last public performance for the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

If Carnegie Hall was a monument to the steel titan’s appreciation for the arts, there are also the numerous libraries—which Carnegie stipulated be made functional and built without ornament—around the world. And Carnegie was not satisfied to merely donate money. He also funded what he regarded as bold ventures, such as former President Theodore Roosevelt’s ambitious safari in Africa. Following the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, when the United States captured the Philippines from Spain, which he denounced as imperialism, Carnegie offered to buy the Philippines, assuring the nation’s independence, for $20 million.

Carnegie actively sought instruction from philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a friend of Charles Darwin’s who emphasized the importance of the individual over society and of science over religion. After reading Darwin’s and Spencer’s writings, Carnegie wrote that “light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth of evolution. “All is well since all grows better” became my motto, my true source of comfort.”

That the ‘Great Egoist’, who attached significance to names and put his name on colleges, halls and steel companies, loved his work and lived his life in comfort is abundantly clear. That he did so by making an effort to think, write, and speak as an intellectual businessman is not as widely known. But, today, we are the secondary beneficiaries—in railroads, bridges, and things made of steel—in Western Union, Madison Square Garden, and Carnegie Mellon University, which he created or helped to build—in places like public libraries, and Carnegie Hall—of all that Andrew Carnegie thought, wrote, and produced.

Carnegie on the Stock Market

Writing in his autobiography, steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) argued: “no sound judgment can remain with the man whose mind is disturbed by the mercurial changes of the Stock Exchange. It places him under an influence akin to intoxication. What is not, he sees, and what he sees, is not. He cannot judge of relative values or get the true perspective of things. The molehill seems to him a mountain and the mountain a molehill, and he jumps at conclusions which he should arrive at by reason. His mind is upon the stock quotations and not upon the points that require calm thought. Speculation is a parasite feeding upon values, creating none.”

British Petroleum CEO John Browne Interviewed in 1997

With the press and the Obama administration making British Petroleum (BP) into an arch-enemy of mankind in the wake of the nation’s worst oil spill at BP’s offshore oil drilling facility in the Gulf of Mexico, I found a couple of interesting counterpoints. “Three Myths About Oil,” a commentary about the oil business by energy analyst Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Institute, offers an excellent overview of the relevant facts about demand and drilling for oil that challenges the predominant views.

The other is an interesting 1997 interview with then-BP Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Browne published in the Harvard Business Review. Mr. Browne comes across as a thoughtful company leader. When asked about the changing rules of competition, he replies, in part: “If we drill each well more efficiently than the last one, we can make a lot more money–which is exactly what we’re trying to do.” His point that the profit motive is the best assurance of quality drilling procedures is well taken and, whatever BP’s decisions since he was in charge, the extent of BP’s role in causing the current spill will undoubtedly affect their ability to make money in the future, indeed, if BP even survives as a company.

John Browne also talked about the difficulty of deep water drilling, which is essentially mandated by the government due to environmentalist bans and concerns about closer offshore drilling. Browne said: “We have a big acreage position in the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling is an enormous technical challenge. The water there is between 2,000 and 8,000 feet deep, and then you have to drill 7,000 and 12,000 feet below the seabed to reach hydrocarbons. Because the water is so deep, you can’t affix anything to the seabed, and no human being can go down that far. So you have to use special vessels to drill. They are very expensive, and because it’s fashionable to be drilling in this area, they’re becoming even more expensive. In 1995, we spent 100 days on average drilling deepwater wells. We now spend 42.”

That was 1997 and it certainly sounds as though BP was well aware of the risks and was working to measurably reduce exposure to risk. There is no dispute that government regulations and bans on offshore oil drilling are an integral part of the cause of the current spill and the attacks on British Petroleum by the U.S. government are a deflection based on the government’s guilt in causing the destruction. To whatever extent BP made mistakes, they should make amends, but when it comes to oil, safety, and fixing problems, I trust BP more than I trust the government.

I do not know much about the company’s rich history, but I am generally impressed by Mr. Browne in the Harvard Business Review interview, conducted by Steven Prokesch. Asked about business relationships, echoing banker John Allison’s views on self-interest in business, Mr. Browne explains: “You can’t create an enduring business by viewing relationships as a bazaar activity–in which I try to get the best of you and you of me–or in which you pass off as much risk as you can to the other guy. Rather, we must view relationships as a coming together that allows us to do something no other two parties could do–something that makes the pie bigger and is to your advantage and to my advantage.” He goes on to cite a case involving oil field services company Schlumberger, which developed a logging tool for BP which allowed BP to better gauge drilling horizontal wells.

Browne also offered six points on building distinctive relationships. “The most important aspect of any relationship,” he answered, “is understanding what your partners hope to get out of it and to work hard to help them achieve that goal. It is the key to transforming a contractual relationship into a genuine collaboration.” Point two is that you have to deliver on promises. Third, he said, “you never build a relationship between your organization and a company or a government. You build it between individuals.” Fourth, Browne advised keeping relationships relatively open, flexible and cooperative; fifth, that you approach an opportunity with what he calls humility, by which I think he means an awareness of one’s limitations, and sixth, that you build relationships for the long-term. Responding to the follow up question, he recommended that businesses “instill the belief that competitive performance matters–that producing value is everyone’s job and that to produce value you need to focus so that you don’t get distracted by things that aren’t central.”

Later in the interview, he relates the story of how BP’s step-by-step approach to horizontal drilling resulted in oil wells he calls “the longest drilled in the history of the oil industry” that saved the company $ 75 million. Mr. Browne concluded: “So, contrary to what some may believe, you can institutionalize breakthrough thinking.” [Emphasis his]. Yes, you can, if you are free to compete in business, to drill for oil, and, first and foremost, to think.

Disney Loses Dick Cook

Earlier this month, I pondered whether Disney’s deal to buy Marvel Comics signaled an end to Walt Disney’s legendary commitment to creating wholesome stories—with characters in motion pictures and theme park attractions that evoke childlike wonder. Now that Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook has apparently been ousted by Disney’s Chief Executive Officer Robert Iger, we may be closer to having an answer.

The most interesting report comes from CNBC’s Julia Boorstin, who suggests that Disney’s movie slate may rely increasingly on others, reinforcing my concern that Walt’s original creative philosophy is being incrementally phased out or rejected by Mr. Iger. This would be a mistake in creative and in commercial terms, leaving Disney no more distinct that any other Hollywood studio and making the Burbank, California-based studio merely another entry in delivering me-too cultural cynicism. Disney was already well on its way with a mediocre slate of forgettable movies—Enchanted, Up, Pirates of the Caribbean—while Dick Cook was in charge but the honorable chairman, who worked his way up from Disneyland cast member during his 38 years at Disney, understood Walt’s benevolent sense of life and the need to make movies in a private, proprietary artistic system that nurtures and cultivates the individual’s creative vision (Frank Marshall’s man-dog Antarctica adventure Eight Below comes to mind). He built solid relationships with artists based on trust and respect and he deserved better than an abrupt departure.

If Boorstin’s sources are correct that a scaled back studio leaves Disney free to create fewer bigger, better movies, I see no reason why Dick Cook could not have made that happen—unless Cook had some fundamental objection to corporate plans for the studio. Movies such as The Proposal prove that quality pictures can be made, marketed, and sold to the public and Disney can’t be counted out. The number of recent missteps—overexposing its products and depleting the sense of magic and mystery at the recent self-promotional D23 exposition, bland, bleak movies such as Up and Wall-E and the dreadful decision to release Mel Gibson’s primitive horror movie Apocalypto after his anti-Jewish tirade—is offset by good calls on High School Musical, dumping Walden Media’s Christian Narnia movies, and remaking Disney’s California Adventure as a tribute to Walt Disney and early 20th century Americanism. That mixed record and risky moves such as Disney’s train tour for the expensive A Christmas Carol, pushing cash-strapped consumers to buy movies on the pricey Blu-Ray discs, and upcoming remakes Tron, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (with Terminator: Salvation director McG on board, it might be good) and the new picture, Surrogates, Disney’s future as a great, American movie business might be in jeopardy. Dick Cook’s departure makes that look more likely. Knowing who replaces Dick Cook, who worked his way from Disneyland to promoting the studio’s most imaginative recent achievement, The Little Mermaid, and creating Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store, will provide a leading indicator. In the meantime, Disney has lost one its best minds.