With 2009 having come to a close, we are of course inundated with lists of the best films of the year along with the early buzz for the Academy Awards, and near the top of almost every list has been Up in the Air, the Jason Reitman film starring George Clooney as a professional downsizer. Up in the Air is something of a favorite going into awards season, with its topical subject matter, major star, and Hollywood royalty director (Jason Reitman is the son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman).
But largely lost in the accolades for how topical Up in the Air is has been what the film actually has to say about downsizing, and its impact on America.
(Be Warned: Spoilers Abound!)
Up in the Air is largely the story of Ryan Bingham, played by Clooney, who toils for a corporation offering "termination services" to firms running the gamut of professional enterprise in the United States. The reason why Bingham has a profession is made clear through the first third of the film; there are many people who need to be fired, and it is a delicate operation. Fired employees may be difficult and/or dangerous, are more likely to argue or act out if fired by a person they know, and there are a myriad of legal landmines that it is important for a firm letting employees go to avoid.
And then, shortly after the opening of the film, the movie pretty much loses interest in firing people.
Sure, Bingham leads a lonely, empty life. But not because of his job. His life is empty because he wants it that way, for reasons that the movie never explores. He's collecting frequent flier miles for the sake of it. He gives motivational speeches about the virtues of an empty life. He picks up Vera Famiga in a hotel bar. In the meantime, he does his job. He trains a subordinate and flies around the country firing people. And while his subordinate feels remorse at what she is doing, Bingham never does. On the contrary; what he does is important - a fired employee kills herself when the task is bungled.
But in the end, the film isn't very interested in downsizing; it is interested in Bingham, and how he learns to change his life and be a better person. In the end, Bingham "wins" the argument over firing people; instead of doing it the cheapest way possible, his firm will continue using a "personal touch". They will fire strangers with as much dignity can be summoned. The important thing, from the point of view of the movie, is that Bingham has grown as a person. The decision of the film is clear; firing people is okay, but being a loner who doesn't care about his siblings isn't.
This represents, after a fashion, the cultural triumph of the downsizing movement. It is an unstoppable reality, in our view, and what matters to us now is that it is treated with sufficient solemnity. Like the last meal given before an execution, what the movie (and by extension, the audience) demands are acts that show that we care despite having no meaningful effect on the outcome. The central debate of the film's business is whether it is worth the added cost to fire people with platitudes and doublespeak in person; we must signal, in that moment, that we aren't merely callous, money-driven bastards who don't appreciate the contributions of workers enough to even give them a flesh-and-blood human being to spit the doublespeak out.
And that is where our cultural sense of right and wrong is presently. I think it is important for us to understand what we have to work with.