Up in the Air

Up in the Air. Directed by Jason Reitman. 2009.

This is the perfect movie for our age of chronic immorality in the business world. This is the perfect movie for the moment, because it encapsulates so much of what is wrong with modern day, monopoly capitalism in America. The enormous pressure, the obvious trend, the powers that be all want to force open more and more areas of life to the potential for profit, costs be damned for the rest of us. Life matters not. Health and heart matter not. The concentration of money in fewer and fewer hands means everything. There is no place that capitalism doesn’t see us — as Rilke might have said today — and seek what little we have left of our own.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional terminator. He fires people for a living. As I watched his excellent performance, I couldn’t help but think how incredible it was that such a job exists. In the last two years, nine million Americans have been fired, their lives shattered, and here we have a company that actually profits mightily when the economy crashes. And I couldn’t decide which bothered me more. The fact that corporations didn’t even have the decency to fire their own workers face to face, or that vulture capitalists created yet another industry to do the work for them. Bingham’s boss, played by Jason Bateman, can barely contain himself when he talks to his troops about how the economy is going south in a hurry, and rallies them to get out there and bring back the bacon. We don’t get to meet any of the bosses who outsource firing their employees to Bateman, but we do get to meet the soon to be ex-employees. Reitman used recently fired non-actors, and let them improvise, which brings obvious authenticity to those scenes. But the real focus is on Bingham and a new terminator he takes under his wing, Natalie Keener, played by Anna Kendrick.

We get a further layer of distance and detachment thrown in the mix when Keener pitches a way for their company to save money, which her boss initially loves. Don’t fly all over the country, firing people in person. Set them up with a laptop and do it over the Internet!! Bingham hates the idea, for several reasons, but the biggest appear to be his love of flying, living in hotel rooms, and avoiding going home. He wants to avoid home so badly he doesn’t really have one, just a tiny apartment that replicates the hotel rooms he prefers. Bingham manages to talk his boss into taking the ambitious Keener with him on his rounds “up in the air” and we soon get to the heart of the movie.

Reitman shows us how we institutionalize cruelty and unfairness in the market. I have no idea if he meant to do this consciously, but it was all too apparent to me as a description of some of the ways we rationalize what we do to each other. Keener learns all too quickly how horrible it is to fire someone face to face, and it’s not long before she distances her self by managing workers who fire others over the Internet. In order for us to live with ourselves, to accept what we do to others as “normal” and “natural”, we try to put bureaucratic layers between ourselves and the victims of our actions. We run from the face to face and would rather control others who get to deal more directly with the effects of indifference. This is one aspect of what Hannah Arendt meant by the phrase, “the banality of evil.”

I was surprised by the outcome in places. My first guess when I saw that the Internet idea had been accepted was that the terminators would be terminated. The movie goes in another direction. But if we game out the likely progression of that business model, the Ryan Binghams of this world are not safe either from the ravenous maw of capitalism, which always seeks to grow profits, regardless of what it does to workers. Just as some movie studio execs have said they wish they could make movies without real actors, I imagine many capitalists would love to be able to do without human workers altogether if they could, labor being their biggest cost. First, you get outsourcing to so-called third world countries, then you get subcontractors closing down those factories and outsourcing to even poorer people on their rickety front porches, and before long mechanization will do away with even those jobs paying just pennies a day.

But you can’t get blood from a stone. Eventually, America and the world will wake up to the fact that capitalism’s hour is drawing to a close. It causes too much volatility, danger, cruelty and dislocation in the world, and even the best capitalists are running out of ways to financialize it, squeeze workers, outsource, subcontract, sub-sub-contract et al. Eventually people just aren’t going to put up with being stomped on, while the richest 1% hoards more and more of the total pie, and we socialize their risk but let them keep all of their ginormous gains.

All of our lives are “up in the air” until we figure this mess out and learn to allocate our resources in a fairer, healthier, more humane and less disruptive manner.


Up in the Air
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