Up In The Air

Up in the Air is like Doubt, both in being a well done movie and in tempting viewers to project their values onto its ambiguity.  It is about Ryan Bingham, who fires folks for a living.  At first the film seems to criticize corporations for firing folks, and to criticize Ryan for his collaboration.  But eventually the film doesn’t so much change its mind as lose interest.  The movie cares far more about what a willingness to fire people says about Ryan’s character, than it does about the people fired.  Once Ryan has an awakening to self-insight, we the audience are fine with whatever he chooses.

To the extent the movie criticizes firing folks, it mainly frowns on doing so on the cheap, via a low paid newbie following a script by phone rather than a handsome thoughtful professional in person.  Apparently we are ok with firing folks, as long as the occasion has sufficient solemnity to show respect for the departed.  It is like how we respect a hunter who pauses to say an eloquent prayer for the animal he killed, in contrast to an insensitive slaughterhouse worker just passing time till his shift ends.  As with executing humans, we don’t really mind animals dying, if we show we are good people via the process.

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  • Tree Frog

    It make sense to make the parting between employer and employee as smooth as possible. Firings are not the conclusion of one time transactions.

    The ex-employee goes out into the world and brings word of the experience there – including their exit from the company. Having a decent exit benefits the company in more ways than assuaging of guilt.

    Basically, every company faced with a mass firing should throw a party with a chocolate fountain and Kahlua.

    • JF

      True, but it doesn’t seem likely that non-nice firings are frowned upon just because they might decrease an individual company’s profits.

    • Dave

      Also, note that current employees are keenly aware of how fired employees were treated, and the morale impacts of poorly-handled firings can be very large. No one wants to work for bastards, and firms that have to do large layoffs typically lose some of the employees that they wanted to keep when they quit for other positions. The worse it’s handled, the worse the follow-on effects are.

  • Doug S.

    “We regret to announce the following lay-offs, which I will read in alphabetical order: Simpson, Homer. That is all.”

  • David J

    Robin, you come close to expressing a judgment here, but if I read your comments literally, they are strictly descriptive. Am I reading you right?

    Are you OK with firing folks? As long as the occasion has sufficient solemnity to show respect for the departed?

    • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

      Yup, I’m OK with firing folks. Violations of contract, implicit or explicit, should be treated as such, but otherwise yes I’m OK.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    I saw this last night, and some of the scenes and dialog were great. But I think people are confused if they think–as most people do–that inequality is and firing employees is immoral. It is incredible to expect employers to be obligated to create value for those who expend mere effort in perpetuity based on wage structure that never declines and also to share the upside if that work turns out very valuable. I think neither is just or feasible, but both simultaneously a more conspicuous overreach.

    The people terminated seemed to think that their getting fired was due to meanness. It never occurred to them that if their division is losing money, or they personally are getting paid two times what someone else who can do your job would accept, they are charity cases. Why should others be obligated to provide you with charity? I would say those people are immoral, being inconsiderate of the obligations they impose on others.

    • TranshumanReflector

      Switching to reactions from being laid-off, rather than being fired,

      “…The people terminated seemed to think that their getting fired was due to meanness….”

      Yes, and that a series of layoffs is something personal. As if they could have done something, worked harder or been more ruthless, and avoided the ax. That’s so often not true.

      “…It never occurred to them that if their division is losing money…”

      And it never occurs to laid-off employees, that if the company doesn’t make the cutbacks, they could eventually go under, and everybody loses their jobs.

      Sounds like a good movie, will see it this week.

  • Bill

    A monkey’s amyglada will react and create anxiety when another primate is separated from the group, but apparently us humans aren’t supposed to feel the pain of another’s departure from the tribe.

    Strange that we should fight our bodies and be proud of not caring.

    Perhaps there is stress when we don’t acknowledge our feelings.

    Perhaps there is greater damage done when we don’t acknowledge these feelings than when we do.

    Go with the flow.

  • Robert Simmons

    I think the point is more like, these things happen, it’s how you deal with them that matters. Hence the scene where he talks to the groom about death and such. I do think the movie could have benefitted from a few people taking more zen-like approaches, or who acknowledged they saw it coming, or something like that.

  • Mike

    Saw the movie a few days ago and while the themes discussed here certainly dominated the first half of the movie I thought it transformed into something that had nothing to do with this.

    To me it transformed into a story about the importance of relationships. Ryan Bingham is in the end lonely — but the people who were fired, while they may be suffering hardship, talked about the support and renewed focus on loved ones. Bingham thinks he has found company in his solitary lifestyle but it turns out she is just using him as a diversion from her otherwise fulfilling relationships.

    Looking back it seems these themes were not meshed well — it’s hard for me to find a coherence to the movie as a whole — but I still very much enjoyed it. Society has a way of idealizing marriage which creates a back-reaction but this film I think took a different step which is to look at the “practical” value of sharing your life with someone — while admitting that it’s not completely fulfilling.

  • Dave

    Perhaps I was projecting my values, but I don’t think the film even slightly criticized Ryan’s profession. It poundingly criticized his lifestyle, but on the subject of his livelihood it solidly advanced the thesis that his job was an unfortunate but necessary one, that could be done well or poorly. Indeed, both Ryan and his young assistant are shown doing their jobs both well and poorly.

    Mediocre war movies portray soldiering as either morally good or morally bad. Great war movies portray soldiering as a job offering heightened possibilities for goodness or villiany, but with individual soldiers at different ranges of the spectrum.

  • Licorice

    I don’t think it criticized the need to fire people at all. Not even a little bit. It sympathized with them, and with Clooney equally, but I don’t think there was ever an implication that he was somehow a bad guy for doing it.

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  • captsteve

    Are there actually companies that do what Clooney’s did in this movie?

    If so, what a miserable job that would be. How much would you have to be paid to do that day in and day out?