This past week, my wife and I went to see Buried, Ryan Reynolds' latest flick about a truck driver in Iraq in 2006 who is attacked and kidnapped by someone who wants a ransom from the U.S. government. What I expected was a suspense film appealing to our collective human claustrophobia. I got that, but I ended up with something I didn't expect: a film about customer service. A fair warning: in this analysis, spoilers abound.
For those readers who may not be familiar with Buried, it's largest point of promotion was that the film only physically stars Reynolds. The entire 90 minutes or so are spent with Reynolds' character, Paul Conroy, trapped inside a coffin, buried beneath the ground. We see no flashbacks or fantasy sequences. The film just begins with Conroy waking up inside the coffin.
He does, however, have a phone. And that phone ends up being Conroy's only way of communicating with the outside world and to try to find a way out of his predicament. In other words, we have an individual with a problem that needs to be solved: the perfect premise for a customer service film.
In his case, the problem that needs solving is that Conroy is buried beneath the ground somewhere in Iraq, with no way to escape or to tell people exactly where he is. And much of the drama is developed through Reynolds' various efforts to get in touch with entities to resolve his issue. Let's examine the various customer service interactions Conroy has, and the communication experience he has with each of these entities:
1.) 911 Emergency Response: One of Conroy's first reactions is to call 911. Understandable, perhaps, given how ingrained that response is in our heads. He ends up connected with a responder in Youngstown, Ohio (not sure why it was routed to that 911 center in particular, and neither was Conroy or the responder). To her credit, the woman he is connected to seems to be thinking on her feet. He tells her that he's locked in a coffin. She asks him if he's in a funeral home and questions why he got in the coffin. Conroy, disoriented, is not that helpful at explaining his situation, and we can imagine the woman is trying to work through whether his call is a prank while still trying to take him seriously. When she finally hears him say that he's calling from Iraq and understands his predicament a bit more, the responder says, "The country?" before offering to connect him to the sheriff's department. Conroy hangs up at that point. Considering how out of context Conroy's call would be (since we the viewer have been watching him trapped inside a box, but that reality would not be easy to catch onto sitting in a cubicle in Youngstown), she handled herself well and tried to think on her feet. However, once she got a better grasp on what his situation was, the customer service rep might have admitted not knowing what to do to help him but have pledged to quickly use the greater resources she had at her disposal (Internet, a landline phone, etc.) to find someone to address his situation, since both Conroy and the responder know that the county sheriff wouldn't do him much good.
2.) 411 Directory Assistance: At one point, Conroy decides to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Not having their number handy in the coffin, he calls directory assistance and gets the typical "city/state" questions. He is asked which city, to which he explains that it doesn't matter to him and that he is stuck in an emergency. The operator, needing him to pick an option, calmly reiterates the list, angering Conroy. Before the operator connects him, we hear an exasperated, "You don't have to be rude." Again, perhaps the customer service deserves a B-. In this case, the operator has no idea of this man's predicament, and Conroy is not in the frame of mind to think about the situation from the operator's perspective. Considering the situation, the operator is helpful. However, the comment of exasperation from the operator came from the operator's lack of empathy with the situation a caller might be in, likely due in part from the very short nature of the operator's interaction with callers.
3.) The FBI: My movie memory gets a bit fuzzy here (and I will be happy to update this section if any enterprising readers can help fill in the gaps), but Conroy's call starts off not seeming so promising. The predicament he finds himself in is obviously not one that the Chicago field office regularly gets calls on, and he gets routed to an office. The gentleman he talks with likewise doesn't seem very helpful nor very empathetic at first but ends up connecting Conroy to someone at the State Department. The person at the State Department is quite rude to him at times, keeping standard lines about not paying ransom, and doesn't demonstrate much compassion for Conroy's plight but is helpful, giving him a number to call a special agent stationed in Iraq who helps with hostage situations. On the one hand, it's impressive that Conroy gets successfully routed to the right place (and that the State Department already has information flagged on Conroy from his employer; more on that later); on the other, her tone and lack of compassion only aggravates Conroy more.
4.) Dan Brenner: From the beginning, this hostage specialist seems to be the first person who deeply cares about Conroy. He works his way through Conroy's frustrations, is stern with him when he isn't listening or isn't helpful but also compassionate and understanding. Dan is never condescending and takes seriously Conroy's concerns and criticisms throughout their conversation. He expresses regret when he can't, for instance, pay the ransom, and he is honest with Conroy about his likelihood of being rescued and tempers optimism with realism. Crucially, when Conroy presses that he bets Dan doesn't care about the people who have been kidnapped, he assures him he does and names one person in particular who really connected with him. When Conroy asked how that person ended up, there's a pause, and Dan says that he ended up safely back home with his family. The conclusion of the film reveals, however, that this reassuring story was actually fabricated only to placate Conroy. On the one hand, we might say the representative was doing all he could to keep Conroy calm in a bad situation. On the other, his lack of truthfulness might be read as another sign of corporate obfuscation.
5.) Conroy's Employer: The definite service villain of the film, however, is Conroy's employer. When he first contacts the company to tell them of the attack, he is grilled as to why he did not follow protocol and call the emergency number. Then, after having no luck with the receptionist, he is connected to the voicemail of Alan Davenport, an HR specialist. Later, in perhaps the most sickening scene in the film, Davenport calls back, presumably to offer support for Conroy. Instead, he ends up recording Conroy, telling him they had reports of an inappropriate relationship with a female employee (claims that are never resolved one way or another in the film), and telling him that he had, in fact, been terminated immediately, meaning the company had no liability for the situation he found himself in, could not be held liable, and would not have to pay out any applicable insurance claims. Davenport forces an hystical Conroy to acknowledge that he had heard these claims and ignores his calls for distress. One reviewer said this HR experience for Conroy is "so evil that we in the audience may desire to overthrow capitalism."
Perhaps director Rodrigo Cortés didn't want to promote Buried as a customer service film, but I'm thinking the film may be a sign of a new genre in development. After all, we've seen customer service outrage drive spreadability online, and everyone can empathize with a poor experience in dealing with "customer care." Over the past year, I've had the pleasure of getting to know Emily Yellin, author of Your Call Is (not that) Important to Us, a history and analysis of the customer service in the United States. Yellin tells me that, everywhere she goes, everyone has a customer service story they passionately want to share...and the many customer service professionals working in our country today similarly have stories of outrage to share.
In the past few years, we've seen folk heroes emerge such as Mona "The Hammer" Shaw, who, in 2007, destroyed a computer and phone at a Comcast office with a hammer after having her customer service issue ignored on repeated occasions by the company. On the employee's side, who could forget Steven Slater's rise to prominence earlier this year after he delivered a rant to a belligerent passenger on a JetBlue flight upon landing, grabbed a beer, and bailed on the flight through the plane's emergency chute. And then there's the famous incident between director Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines back in February, when Smith was denied his seat in a tussle over the airlines' obesity requirement. (Perhaps Smith is already working on film ideas for this fledgling genre?)
So to any Hollywood types that might be reading: will there be more customer service flicks to come? Are there others in the recent past that join Buried as the pioneers for a new genre?
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.