Jason Reitman’s 2009 film Up in the Airtells the story of Ryan Bingham, a man who has the unusual job of working for an HR company that specialises in assisting with employee terminations. The company euphemistically refers to its work as “career transition counselling”, but essentially Ryan is hired by other companies to retrench their employees for them. So uncomfortable is the idea of having to lay off employees that many bosses simply cannot face doing it themselves, preferring – somewhat callously – to hire a stranger to deliver some of the worst news that any person can receive. The modern world of work can be a cut-throat one, the film shows us, and we must be prepared for this.
Ryan prepares for this world of work by making himself indispensable to his company, through his total devotion to his job. He has no friends or romantic partners, is only distantly connected to his family, and has no apparent hobbies or interests outside of his work. He leads a nomadic lifestyle, travelling around the US in a continuous blur of business class flights and swanky hotels, and refers to the airport as his “home”. He is not particularly passionate about his work – passion would be too strong a word for such a cynical man – but he knows he is good at what he does. And he is happy with this life – or so he tells anyone who will listen. Ryan also moonlights as a motivational speaker, using the image of a backpack, weighed down by relationships and belongings, to encourage people to embrace the euphoria that is a solitary, unburdened life. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes evident that his bid to assure everyone else that he is happy with his life is really how he tries to convince himself that he is content.
The danger of making his job his only priority becomes apparent when Ryan’s company announces its intention to start using video-conferencing to conduct retrenchments, negating the need to travel and threatening Ryan’s entire way of life. And as if to further highlight just how tenuous his professional position is, Ryan is also forced to take Natalie – the young employee who pitched the video-conferencing idea to Ryan’s employers – with him on a final “retrenchment tour” around the US, so that she can learn the tricks of the trade. Without warning, Ryan finds himself cast in the role of the aged worker who could himself soon be out of a job, replaced by a bright-eyed graduate and her new technology.
Without his job, Ryan has nothing, and this realisation begins to resonate with him as the film progresses, and his desire for human connection starts to surface. This desire is most clearly articulated in his relationship with another frequent-flyer named Alex. They meet in an airport lounge and begin a predictably casual relationship, seeing each other sporadically whenever they happen to be in the same city. Natalie – who maintains an unwavering belief in the value of romantic love, despite having recently broken up with her boyfriend – questions Ryan about the nature of his relationship with Alex, and he vehemently denies that there is any emotional component to it. However, later in the movie, Ryan decides on a whim to visit Alex at her home and is devastated when he discovers that she is married and has children. He quickly leaves and in a later phone call, Alex makes it clear that she does not care about him. “You are an escape, you are a break from my normal life, you are a parenthesis,” she tells him, as the camera zooms in on his face. He is visibly – and uncharacteristically – upset, and puts the phone down without saying goodbye.
So meaningless is the life that Ryan has built that his only goal is to try and collect as many frequent flyer miles as possible on his trips. He does this not so that they may be used to fund an exciting holiday abroad, or a trip to see his family, but simply because the act of collecting makes him feel like he is doing something meaningful – “The miles are the goal” he tells an incredulous Natalie. On his flight home from his disastrous visit to Alex, the air hostess announces that Ryan has become the youngest person to reach 10 million miles. But at this point in the story the victory is a hollow one, highlighting just how empty his life really is.
There is no doubt that devotion to one’s job is good and admirable, and necessary in a world of work where competition for positions is extremely high and candidates are increasingly more educated and ambitious. Having ambition and a sound work ethic is crucial to gaining the monetary reward that is necessary not only to survive, but also to enable many of the other avenues by which people derive happiness in their lives. Without this monetary reward, people cannot build homes, provide for their families, travel or pursue their passions. Dedication to one’s work is also crucial for achieving the more abstract personal rewards that come from a job well done – the ability to meaningfully contribute to one’s company and to society at large, the chance to expand one’s knowledge and skills, and the rush of having excelled at something.
Work is a crucial element in our quest to create a life that is meaningful – after all, it is where we spend most of our waking hours. But it cannot stand alone, or it is rendered entirely meaningless – we do not work just for the sake of working, but for the rewards we glean from it and the meaning these take on when we are able to share them with other people. In Up in the Air, Ryan’s act of collecting air miles is made entirely meaningless by the fact that he has no plans to use them. It is only when he gifts the miles to his sister, so that she and her husband can go on honeymoon, that the act becomes something that has purpose.
Ryan’s company ultimately decides not to start using video-conferencing, and Ryan is able to keep his job. But by this point, both he and the viewers have seen how inadequate his work is for creating a truly fulfilling life. In the final scenes of the film, Ryan is shown pausing at a departures and arrivals board before taking yet another flight. We don’t know whether he is on his way to perform more retrenchments – whether he will ignore what he has learnt and continue to prize his work above all else – or whether he is using his miles to go on a more meaningful journey. But it really does not matter, for the film is not really about Ryan. In the final shot, the camera pauses for a few poignant seconds on the view of the clouds that can be seen out of the aeroplane window, and viewers are given a moment to consider what they would do in his situation. And in doing so, to reflect on what is really important in their own lives.