Up in the Air - Success and Business Ethics
Up in the Air (2009)
- Examining the morality of modern business life - people or profit?
- Its star, George Clooney, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the corporate
downsizer, Ryan Bingham.
Walter Kirn’s (pictured right) novel, Up in the Air.
Jason Reitman (pictured right).
None (but received six nominations).
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a fortysomething corporate downsizer (hired by different
companies to fire people).
Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), his girlfriend and fellow travelling executive, also in her
Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), his 23-year-old colleague (pictured right with
Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman), his boss.
Kara Bingham (Amy Morton), his older sister.
Julie Bingham (Melanie Lynskey), his younger sister.
Jim Miller (Danny McBride), Julie’s fiancé.
Fortysomething Ryan Bingham (pictured right):
- is a corporate downsizer (hired by different companies to fire people).
- loves the travelling by air.
- prides himself on how quickly he gets through airport security and the priority treatment he receives from
his airline, American Airlines, for being such a frequent flyer.
His ambition is to be only the seventh person to accumulate 10 million air miles.
In his interviews the fired employees are obviously devastated (and often very angry and concerned for their
families), but he:
- emphasizes the opportunities of a new career.
- gives people a motivational speech, ‘What’s In Your Backpack?’ (extolling the virtues
of a life free of possessions and personal relationships that get in the way of career
- has no life outside his work (his relationships are casual, and his
apartment is soulless and bare ,because airports and hotels are his real home).
- has little time for his family (his sisters, Kara and
Julie, pictured right together).
- is irritated by Kara’s request to take photos of a cardboard cut-out of Julie and her fiancé,
Jim, at various locations for their wedding.
His contentment is shattered by:
- a deepening relationship with a fellow fortysomething travelling executive, Alex
- the arrival of a young colleague, Natalie Keener.
Ryan's boss (Craig Gregory):
- is won over by Natalie's cost cutting idea of interviews by videoconferencing.
- tells Ryan to take her on his trips to show her the ropes (pictured right).
- questions Ryan’s loveless lifestyle.
- is dumped by her boyfriend via text message.
Ryan and Alex (pictured right below) try to console Natalie, who is shocked when an African American
interviewee, Karen Barnes, says she will kill herself on hearing about her dismissal.
They try the videoconferencing but this leaves no one to comfort a fired employee who breaks
down in tears.
Ryan asks Alex to go away for the weekend (pictured right) for his sister Julie’s marriage to
Jim. He is disappointed when Julie wants Jim’s uncle, not him, to take her down the aisle.
But he persuades a wavering Jim to carry on with the marriage by:
- contradicting his work first philosophy.
- telling Jim that people need long-term relationships.
Ryan discovers that a lot of other people have been taking photos of Julie and Jim’s cut-out as a
substitute for a honeymoon they can’t afford.
Soon after the wedding, he walks out at the beginning of his ‘What’s In Your Backpack?’ speech, because he
doesn’t believe it anymore.
He goes to Alex’s (pictured right) Chicago home, hoping for a more permanent relationship. But he leaves
broken-hearted after discovering that she’s married with children.
The next day she:
- tells him that her family (her “real life”) comes first.
- calls him only an “escape” and a “parenthesis”.
On his flight home it is announced that he has passed 10 million air miles and the captain
tells him he is the youngest person to have done this.
When he arrives back at his office, he transfers a million air miles to Julie and Jim so that they can fly
around the world for a honeymoon.
His boss, Ryan Gregory tells him that the videoconferencing has been dropped, and the old
person to person interviewing will continue.
On hearing that Karen Barnes really did commit suicide, Natalie (telling Gregory by
text) joins a San Francisco company, helped by Ryan’s glowing letter of recommendation.
The film ends with Ryan staring at a huge airport destination board, begging the question:
Will he carry on his city hopping interviewing, or leave for a more fulfilling people centred
Lessons for success and business ethics
1. People need people
Ryan loves his life “up in the air”.
But, through his friendship with Alex and Natalie, he:
- begins to question his loveless lifestyle.
- says ruefully that the plane was his home to the captain (who has just congratulated him
on getting 10 million air miles, ironically Ryan’s sole ambition).
- wants a real home with a family (for the first time).
But he is devastated when the deceitful (and married) Alex tells him he is only an “escape” and a
2. People comes before profit
Karen Barnes’ suicide shows how Ryan and Natalie’s interviews:
- destroy lives for the sake of profit.
- are made even more brutal by the use of videoconferencing.
Natalie leaves because she realizes that people must always come first, a philosophy initially rejected by
In his ‘What’s In Your Backpack’ speech Ryan says we are all sharks in a fast moving war for success that is won
by discarding from your backpack the weight of your relationships.
But his relationships make him realize that people are more important than his job (which is
why he gives his air miles to Julie and Jim so that they can have a great honeymoon).
He is also kind enough to write a job winning letter of recommendation for Natalie.
3. Deal with people face to face
Electronic communication is heartless because it lacks the empathy of face to face contact.
- is cruelly dumped by her boyfriend via text.
- purposely uses this impersonal communication (to announce her departure from her
Videoconferencing makes the firing interviews even more emotionally devastating, as opposed to Ryan who:
- tries to interview “with dignity”.
- gives people helpful advice about the opportunities of a new career.
He persuades one man to use his redundancy money to pursue his love of cooking.
4. Don’t forget your family
Alex has something incredibly valuable that Ryan lacks – a real home with a family she loves
(despite her duplicitous affair with Ryan).
5. Cutting costs can hurt customers
Videoconferencing is cheaper but worse for the person being fired, because human empathy and
understanding are removed from the interview.
6. Little things mean a lot
Ryan’s photos of Julie and Jim’s cardboard cut-out help them to bear the disappointment of not having a
Then the generous gift of Ryan’s air miles gives them a fantastic one after all!
Key quotes on relationships
Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life, Ryan Bingham (in
his ‘What’s In Your Backpack?’ speech).
Life’s better with company...Everybody needs a co-pilot, Ryan (to Jim, Julie’s fiancé).
Make no mistake, we all die alone, Ryan (to Natalie).
Key quotes on success
The slower we move, the faster we die . . . we're sharks, we have to keep moving, Ryan (in the
Key quotes on downsizing
Anyone who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you’re sitting right now,
Ryan (his opening line to the people he fires).
Key quote on
My kids are my purpose, someone who Ryan fires.
Key quote on work and family
Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about
their day, and tonight they’ll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places and one of those
lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over, Ryan’s voiceover at
the end of the film staring at the airport destination board.
Two film websites to recommend
1. filmsite.org (run by Tim Dirks).
2. aveleyman.com (run by Tony Sullivan)