In John Wells' 'The Company Men,' which opens in limited release later this month before expanding in January, Tommy Lee Jones plays a top-level executive at a shipbuilding company who is facing a crisis of conscience. The company has begun laying off thousands of workers to deal with the economic downturn -- sales exec Ben Affleck is among the first to go, while middle-management exec Chris Cooper fears for his survival -- and Jones rages at the light, fighting a losing battle with his boss and old friend Craig T. Nelson in behalf of humane and fair treatment of the employees.
Initially it seems odd to see Jones dressed in expensive suits with every hair in place. He gives an exquisite performance as a businessman worn down by the ceaseless corporate quest for more profits and increased shareholder value, no matter the human cost. But we've become much more accustomed to seeing him chase down the bad guys, whether as a weathered sheriff in 'No Country for Old Men' or as a no-nonsense U.S. Marshal in 'The Fugitive,' his best role to date. What makes the latter performance so special?
He doesn't appear until about 20 minutes into the movie, just after Harrison Ford has gone on the run in the aftermath of an ear-clanging collision between a prison bus and a freight train. His first words as U.S. Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard come in reaction to the scene of the tremendous wreck as he gets out of a car with his colleagues: "My, my, my, what a mess."
The script was not in finished form when production began, and so many, though not all, of the lines and bits of character business were worked out just before individual scenes were filmed, according to Jones and director Andrew Davis on the DVD commentary.
In that first scene, we get a good sense of Gerard's character. He's respectful of the local sheriff, patiently waiting to talk to him. It's only when the sheriff expresses a reluctance to cooperate that he exercises his authority, taking control of the crime scene and ordering "a hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse and doghouse." He changes his tone slightly when he announces the fugitive's name, biting off each word: "Dr. Richard Kimble," sounding disgusted that a common murderer should have such an exalted title.
Gerard displays his command further when Kimble steals an ambulance, barking orders from a helicopter as he directs the chase. That leads to his confrontation with Kimble in a watery tunnel above a dam, and Gerard's response to Kimble's plea, "I didn't kill my wife." When Gerard exclaims "I don't care," he's establishing his motivation; he's not judging guilt or innocence, he's chasing a fugitive. That's his job, that's what he cares about.
The next few scenes with Gerard establish to a finer degree his relationship with the people under his command, how Gerard works with his superiors and colleagues in other agencies, and his manner of questioning witnesses.
He treats his unit according to their personalities. He's fatherly with the young Newman (Tom Wood), a big brother to Poole (L. Scott Caldwell), occasionally impatient with Poole (Daniel Roebuck), and constantly picking on the fiery Cosmo (Joe Pantoliano).
With his superiors and other-agency colleagues, he's respectful, even when he obviously thinks they're off-base. You can see that when he finishes up a phone conversation about his shooting of a fugitive ("He was a bad man and he was trying to hurt one of my kids") and his talk with the Chicago detectives about Kimble's motive for murdering his wife ("He's a doctor, he's already rich").
Back at the train wreck scene, we saw Gerard put his arm around a bloodied prison guard, kindly asking him about the discovery of leg irons without any legs in them, and asking if he wanted to change his story. Later he talks to Dr. Charles Nichols (Jeroen Krabbe) in his office, displaying surprise, but not anger, when Nichols says he saw Kimble that morning and declares his intention to help an escaped convict.
All of these shifting tones and conversational colors come courtesy of Tommy Lee Jones. He's in control as paternal commander of his unit and cool under pressure when dealing with angry cops, impertinent doctors and inquisitive reporters. He's incredibly well-focused on the task at hand and never loses sight of his ultimate goal, which is to capture a killer, as can be seen in this scene when he catches sight of Kimble at the county jail and gives chase.
Yet he's not one to ignore the growing evidence that Dr. Kimble did not, in fact, kill his wife. His sense of justice is tempered with mercy.
Jones has the rare ability to think on screen. It's in the eyes and the contours of his face, the way his jaw is set and his eyes flare slightly when he makes a decision or comes to a conclusion.
It's what makes U.S. Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard a fully fleshed-out character. It's why Tommy Lee Jones deservedly won an Academy Award for his performance.
In his early career, Jones was captivating to watch in 'Jackson County Jail' and 'The Betsy.' He was mesmerizing in 'Coal Miner's Daughter' and 'The Executioner's Song.' He was terrific in 'Lonesome Dove' and 'JFK,' for which he received an Academy Award nomination, and juicy as a villain in 'Under Siege.'
After 'The Fugutive,' Jones was wonderful in 'Cobb,' entertaining in 'Men in Black,' and outstanding in 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,' which he also directed. 'In the Valley of Elah' and 'No Country for Old Men' were triumphs of subtlety and grace.
But Sam Gerard in 'The Fugitive' is his best role.