ON Christmas Day, Hollywood will blanket America with a most unlikely holiday entertainment. That’s when “Up in the Air,” the acclaimed new movie starring George Clooney, will spread from its big-city engagements to more than 2,000 screens. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate road warrior for a small, Omaha-based contractor hired to lay off employees for companies that prefer to outsource that unpleasant task. Ryan has fired so many people in so many cities that he is approaching a frequent-flier status unknown to all but a few Americans.
How could a film with that premise be a Christmas hit in a country reeling from the highest unemployment rate in decades? By using the power of pop culture to salve national wounds that continue to fester in the real world.
“Up in the Air” is not a political movie. It won’t be mistaken for either a Michael Moore or Ayn Rand polemic on capitalism. What makes it tick is Ryan’s struggle to reclaim his own humanity, a story that will not be described or spoiled here. But the film’s backdrop is just as primal — and these days perhaps more universal — than the personal drama so movingly atomized by Clooney in the foreground.
Here is 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. “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.
While “Up in the Air” opens with a remix of Woody Guthrie’s Depression-spawned “This Land Is Your Land,” its dispossessed Americans don’t resemble those in a black-and-white Dorothea Lange photograph. They’re not the familiar contemporary blue-collar factory workers in our devastated manufacturing economy. They are instead mostly middle-class refugees from the suburban good life depicted in credit card ads. Their correlative to the Dust Bowl is a coast-to-coast wasteland of foreclosed office spaces where desk chairs and knots of dead phones lie abandoned in a fluorescent half-light. “Up in the Air” taps into the desperation, fear and anger that both the populist left and right are trying to articulate right now, and that leaders of both parties have failed to address.
“Retailers are down 20 percent,” Ryan’s boss tells his troops in a conference room. “Auto industry is in the dump. Housing market doesn’t have a heartbeat. It is one of the worst times on record for America. This is our moment.” And so it is. In constant flight from hub to hub, his staff parachutes into troubled companies to lay off dozens of workers with impressive assembly-line efficiency. The genial Ryan and his fellow “transition specialists” never use the word “fired,” of course. They tell employees they are being “let go” and not to “take it personally.” They hand their prey slick-looking severance packets and, with a doctor’s bedside manner, intone that “we’re here to talk about the future.” Soon it’s time to send the discarded employee to collect his personal effects on the way to the exit.
A new colleague of Ryan’s, a “dynamite young woman” from Cornell, comes up with an innovative strategy for downsizing the downsizers. To eliminate travel costs, she proposes that in-person firings instead be executed long-distance by teleconference, with ranks of “termination engineers” at computer screens reciting from a script titled “Employee Termination Workflow.” In a dry run, the guinea pig is a burly 57-year-old office worker who refuses to stay in the camera frame and staggers off in a paroxysm of anger and sobs. It’s like watching a man being assassinated by a predator drone. But this is Detroit, not Waziristan.
The fictional doings in “Up in the Air,” adapted from a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, are bookended by brief montages culled from interviews that the director, Jason Reitman, conducted with real-life laid-off workers while shooting in Detroit and St. Louis. He asked the interviewees what they had told — or wished they had told — the H.R. bureaucrats who let them go. “On the stress level, I’ve heard that losing your job is like a death in the family,” says one man. “But personally I feel more like the people I worked with were my family, and I died.”