A look at how Americans lose their jobs

George Clooney as a modern terminator in the film
George Clooney as a modern terminator in the film "Up in the Air." (Dale Robinette/associated Press)
By George F. Will
Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Last year," Ryan Bingham says, "I spent 322 days on the road, which means that I had to spend 43 miserable days at home." Home is an Omaha rental unit less furnished than a hotel room. He likes it that way.

Today he is where he feels at home, in an airport -- glass walls and glistening steel, synthetic sincerity and antiseptic hospitality. Today he is showing Natalie, a ferocious young colleague, how an expert road warrior deals with lines at security screening:

Avoid, he says, getting behind travelers with infants ("I've never seen a stroller collapse in less than 20 minutes"). Or behind elderly people ("Their bodies are littered with hidden metal, and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left on Earth"). Do get behind Asians: "They're light packers, treasure efficiency and have a thing for slip-on shoes."

Natalie: "That's racist."

Bingham: "I stereotype. It's faster."

Played with seemingly effortless perfection by the preternaturally smooth George Clooney, Bingham is the cool porcelain heart of the movie "Up in the Air." It is a romantic comedy, although Bingham begins immune to romance and, after a brief and ill-advised lapse into feeling, ends the movie that way. And the comedy is about pain -- about administering it somewhat humanely to people who are losing their jobs.

Bingham is a "termination engineer." He fires people for companies that want to outsource the awkward, and occasionally dangerous, unpleasantness of downsizing. His pitter-patter for the fired -- "Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now" -- rarely consoles. But with his surgeon's detachment, he is more humane than Natalie, who says this:

"This is the first step of a process that will end with you in a new job that fulfills you. . . . I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread the news just yet. Panic doesn't help anybody."

Her brainstorm as a confident young cost-cutter from Cornell is to fire people by video-conferencing. She tells one desolated man:

"Perhaps you're underestimating the positive effect your career transition may have on your children. . . . Tests have shown that children under moderate trauma have a tendency to apply themselves academically as a method of coping."

Bingham considers his low emotional metabolism an achievement, and in motivational speeches he urges his audiences to cultivate it: "Your relationships are the heaviest components of your life. . . . The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We're sharks."

The movie begins and ends with everyday people talking to the camera, making remarkably sensitive statements about the trauma of being declared dispensable. Some, however, recall that the consequences included being reminded that things they retained, such as their human connections, are truly indispensable.

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