And that’s why I wish I had spent a little more time getting a fix on what I was in for before I went to see George Clooney’s latest movie, Up in the Air.
The Internet Movie Database’s synopsis is short and sweet: “With a job that has him traveling around the country firing people, Ryan Bingham leads an empty life out of a suitcase, until his company does the unexpected: ground[s] him.” That’s the bare gist of the plot, but it doesn’t tell you this: Up in the Air is a sign of our troubled times, a film that captures perfectly all that is wrong in the American workplace as we head into the second decade of the 21st century.
If you haven’t seen the movie, just know that the plot centers on George Clooney’s character as he flies around the country firing people for companies that are too cowardly to do it themselves. He’s the ultimate Terminator, and as the film portrays it, he does his job in a terribly efficient and impersonal way.
Some have taken offense at this portrayal. I laughed at a columnist for the Houston Chronicle who went out of her way to talk to hot-and-bothered outplacement professionals who sniffed that “I didn’t see any resemblance for what we do” in the film. Yes, Up in the Air may have some of the details wrong, but it gets the overall sentiment just right: America’s business leaders believe that their workforces are completely and totally disposable.
In fact, what adds to the stark reality of Up in the Air are the scenes where people are told that they are losing their jobs. The range of raw emotions that pour out of these soon-to-be-former workers will surely resonate with anyone who has actually had to sit across the table and do this to someone. Despite what outplacement professionals may believe, the film perfectly captured the reality of what they do and how they do it, even if the specific details were fabricated a bit.
“[This movie shows] an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them,” observed New York Times columnist Frank Rich. “ ‘Up in the Air’ may be a glossy production sprinkled with laughter and sex, but it captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession as vividly as a far more dour Hollywood product of 70 years ago, ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ did the vastly different landscape of the Great Depression. What gives our Great Recession its particular darkness—and gives this film its haunting afterlife—is the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us.”
As impersonal as Clooney’s character is in Up in the Air, much of the plot is driven by his reaction to a technology-based solution his firm has developed that removes the need for him travel to distant offices to do layoffs. All of it can be done remotely, via videoconferencing, and it is only through this complete depersonalization of the termination process that he starts to discover how inhuman all of it is.
A Grapes of Wrath for the new millennium? Not really, because the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, dour or not, ends on a hopeful note. Not so with Up in the Air. It closes with Clooney back on the road, and although he has managed to show that the technological solution to terminations won’t work, all that means is that he has to continue to fire people, en masse, face to face.
This is what it has come to in 2010: A movie about someone who impersonally fires strangers for a living is considered mass entertainment and a front-runner for many film industry awards. Make of that what you will. I consider it to be a terribly troubling reminder of all that is wrong with our treatment of the American workforce, and a sign of how much our corporate thinking needs to change before we can get right again.
Workforce Management, January 2010, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!