Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air begins and ends with documentary-style footage of workers who have recently been fired–or “downsized” in one of the more insensitive euphemisms of our times–discussing their reactions to losing their jobs. They discuss the challenges of losing work, the financial and emotional turmoil that comes with being newly unemployed. After watching the film, my girlfriend speculated, correctly, that the fired workers (other than cameos by J.K. Simmons and Zach Gialifianakis) appeared to be actual workers who had lost their jobs in a struggling economy, a brief glimpse of documentary realism interjected into the film’s narrative.
Because of the film’s topicality–its references to unemployment and the everyday experiences of the contemporary (white-collar) worker–it has become a kind of pretext for talking about the economy. George Will, to no great surprise, uses the film to bash “entitlement programs,” such as unemployment benefits, drawing from the details that the movie is based on a novel from 2001, when the economy was humming along relatively nicely, and that 3.3 million people lost their jobs in 2006 when the unemployment rate was “just” 4.6%. A few lost jobs are simply part of the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Meanwhile, Frank Rich sees the film as a modern day Grapes of Wrath, as “dour” as anything produced during the Great Depression, showing “an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can’t see or know.”
The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, an Omaha-based worker who specializes in flying around the country firing workers when downsizing companies are unwilling to do it. Bingham is meant to provide a soothing, reassuring presence, providing terminated employees with vague platitudes that nobody really believes, often telling workers that getting fired is an opportunity. Bingham spends virtually every day of his life in hotels and airplanes, accumulating an unfathomable number of frequent flier miles and an impressive insider knowledge of all of the perks offered by hotel chains. Bingham’s life allows him to shield himself from any true emotional commitments, and his travels allow him a secondary job as a motivational speaker in which he offers even more platitudes about dispensing with any unnecessary baggage (both physical and emotional). Here, Clooney’s cool detachment works well as a supplement to the character he plays, with the film serving as a commentary of sorts on his star persona.
Bingham’s ability to shield himself from emotional attachments is challenged when the company he works hires Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a 23 year-old Cornell grad who comes up with the idea of streamlining the firing process by setting up a “virtual termination” system. Instead of traveling around the US to fire employees, Bingham and his colleagues can simply sit in a warehouse or office park in Omaha and fire workers over video chat. It saves thousands of dollars in travel money and time, allowing the termination-outsourcing company to make even more money. At the same time, Bingham begins to develop feelings for a fellow traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), first trading travel secrets and work schedules and then connecting on a more emotional level.
Although Bingham’s work is distasteful, a cold way of dealing with traumatized workers, Natalie’s plan to make the firing process more efficient provides us with one of the film’s more powerful observations about how workers are dehumanized, the video chat serving as a way of mediating the employer-employee relationship even further and making it even easier to see workers as objects rather than fully human. Notably, these video chat shots visually echo the documentary sequences so that this commentary becomes a little more explicit. But whether this commentary takes us into political critique is less than clear.
Both Will and Rich catch the remix of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which plays under George Clooney’s voice-over narration of his frequent travels early in the film, but only Rich is astute enough to link the song to Guthrie’s leftist politics (Will just calls it “weird”). And while the film criticizes the attempts to make the termination process more efficient, it does so, to some extent, within the purview of Bingham’s psychological and emotional turmoil. But perhaps the most telling detail about Up in the Air’s ideological outlook is a closing sequence featuring more displaced workers. These are presented from a documentary POV and in the context of Bingham confronting his need for emotional connection after attending his sister’s wedding, and rather than talking about the struggles they face after being fired, the workers discuss how their families helped them to survive, providing them with the emotional support needed during a difficult time. Family becomes a buffer against an uncontrollable economic storm. The CEOs who make the choices to fire (or downsize) these workers remain invisible, the consequences of this unemployment appearing largely off-screen. Instead of the impassioned speech in favor of unionization seen at the end of Grapes of Wrath, the film turns to sentimental love as an alternative to the massive loss of jobs.
As a result, the film opens itself up to a reading like Will’s that allows him to place emphasis on the film’s emotional storyline (Will even resorts to the cliche of citing E.M. Forster’s “only connect”). And although Rich is correct to suggest that Up in the Air makes visible the disconnect between “the two Americas,” it never quite offers the fired, indebted workers an alternative to their current conditions. Significantly, these workers are typically seen in offices and skyscrapers, not in the factories where blue-collar workers dominate. Although Detroit is prominently mentioned, it appears that these lost jobs would, perhaps, disrupt the narrative world too much.