The film Up in the Air (2009) is a must-see. George Clooney plays the protagonist, Ryan Bingham, whose job is fire people, a job terminator. His job requires that he be in flight virtually all the time. He discovers toward the end of the film that what had been one of his key life purposes, shedding relationships, might be a huge mistake.

Perhaps shedding or keeping relationships is also problematic for most people in modern societies: the degree of balance between self and other(s). There doesn't seem to be an easy solution. Even today there are still those who serve others to the point of neglecting self. For example, in the traditional marriage, the wife was supposed to be loyal to husband and family to the point that she gave up vital parts of her self, such as her anger and even her intelligence. The sacrifice of self still occurs today, but the size of this group is probably decreasing. Ryan Bingham represents what may be a substantial majority, those whose first priority is self.

The film, supposedly based on a novel (Kirn 2001), actually creates its own plot and personality for the protagonist. The film particularly scaled down his repulsiveness. Kirn's Ryan was completely self-absorbed, to the point of being oblivious to others. At his worse in the film, Ryan is never oblivious, but he puts self before others, ignoring and avoiding attachments. At the end, he comes to question this equation and begins to change his individualistic attitude and behavior.

Ryan in the film is not a freak like the protagonist in the novel. He can be seen as more of an Everyman (and increasingly, Everywoman, as more women become oriented toward careers). Most of us have been trained that advancement of self should be our foremost goal, even if it means forsaking places and persons. Ryan also seems to be not only alienated from others, but also from self. Perhaps its because of his loathsome profession as terminator: intruding into peoples' lives only long enough to fire them. His casual affairs and meaningless goal of amassing air miles could serve as distractions from the painfulness of his job, shielding him from feeling the shame and guilt that comes from hurting others.

The film can be interpreted as a comment on what sociologists call mass alienation: a society made up of individuals alienated from others and from self. Especially in organizations and in cities, many of us bounce off each other like billiard balls. Since modern societies promote individualism, we have learned to ignore relationships and relationship problems; they are more or less invisible. Yet it seems to me that mass alienation is the ultimate cause of most of the crucial problems that our civilization faces. I salute the filmmakers for trying to call this gigantic issue to our attention.


Kirn, Walter. 2001. Up in the Air. New York: Doubleday.

Reitman, Jason, (Director), and Reitman and Sheldon Turner (Scriptwriters) 2009. "Up in the Air."

About the Author

Thomas J. Scheff

Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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