Therapeutic Movie Review

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D. MFT

Up In The Air


See our online course, Cinema Therapy by Birgit Wolz, Ph.D.


Director: Jason Reitman
Producers: Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2009


Ryan Bingham makes his living traveling around the country as a “Termination Facilitator”, doing the dirty work for corporations by conducting employee layoffs. Heads of firms sometimes need to downsize quickly but hate the “mess”. Bingham gives the newly fired a pat speech with a smile and listens calmly to their uncomfortably direct soliloquies pleading, “What am I going to do now?” (The film characters were played by former employees, who had just been laid off in their real life. Without a script, some of them spoke the way they had really expressed themselves during this process. Others talked how they would have like to have responded.)

Bingham loves his interstitial living because he relishes anonymity, constantly flitting from airline courtesy lounge to hotel hospitality suite to office park conference rooms. “To know me is to fly with me,” he says. The most important goal for his life is to achieve 10 million frequent flyer miles. “Last year”, he says, “three hundred and twenty-two days were spent traveling”, leaving “forty-three miserable days at home,” in Omaha. His apartment looks like an impersonal hotel suite.

Bingham sees neither purpose nor profit in being at rest. “The slower we move, the faster we die,” he says to a business gathering. “We are not swans. We’re sharks.” Sometimes he delivers motivational lectures in a friendly cadence, using the “unpacking your backpack” analogy on happiness through getting rid of life’s “clutter”, such as family, houses, or relationships. Through a form of superficial “Buddhism” (detachment), a life free of things is perfectly calibrated for the age of reduced benefits, job insecurity and outsourcing.

Along the way, Bingham meets one more of his occasional, see-you-when-I-see-you romances. Alex Goran is a woman who appears to be his gender-opposite equal. They meet in dreary hotels sharing meals and making love. From separate cities, they have “text sex”, though neither of them actually bothers with self-pleasure. Alex confides, “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about. Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.”

When Bingham is called back to his company’s headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, he is introduced to an ambitious young Stanford grad and human resources expert, Natalie Keener. Having come of age in front of computers, she suggests cutting costs by having employees grounded and conducting layoffs over the Internet. Natalie had taken her job with this company because her boyfriend moved to Omaha.

Because the isolation of his treasured lifestyle is threatened by the introduction of firing via web cast, Bingham protests. He argues that Natalie knows nothing about the process of laying off people. Consequently, his boss assigns him to take her on his upcoming trips to show her what it is like. As they travel together, he emphasizes his experience with car-rental brands, elite mileage programs, and the best ways for swiftly navigating airport security. Natalie questions Bingham’s philosophies and expresses concerns when an employee threatens to kill herself after being laid off. Natalie’s boyfriend dumps her – ironically via text message – leaving her devastated.

Because he starts feeling attached to Alex, Ryan Bingham invites her to accompany him to his younger sister Julie’s wedding in northern Wisconsin. She is surprised but accepts.

Before the wedding, Ryan shows Alex his old high school, which makes him feel even closer to her. Their date is cut short when his older sister, Kara, calls with urgent news. The groom, Jim, has cold feet, and Ryan must use his motivational skills to convince him to go through with the wedding. Although this runs counter to all of his personal ideals, he successfully argues that the important moments in life are seldom alone. Jim apologizes to Julie and the wedding proceeds as planned. After Ryan and Alex enjoyed the wedding together, he feels lonely when she departs back to her own life. Back in Omaha, he is less than thrilled to learn more about the new implementation of the online firing program.

At a prestigious convention, Ryan abandons his “What’s In Your Backpack?” lecture midway through and flies to visit Alex in Chicago. When she opens the door, it becomes instantly apparent that she is married with young children. He leaves disappointed and speechless. Later, on the phone, Alex explains that her family is her real life and Ryan was just a sideline.

On his flight home, the crew announces that Ryan Bingham has just crossed his 10-million-mile mark, the youngest ever to do so. The airline’s chief pilot comes out of the cockpit to meet him. Ryan notices that meeting his goal is less exciting than he had imagined.

Back in Omaha, Ryan learns that the employee who had threatened to kill herself earlier indeed committed suicide. In the aftermath, Natalie quit the company. Ryan’s boss sends him back onto the road, putting the remote-layoff program on indefinite hold.

As the film concludes, we see documentary-like interviews with various people fired by Ryan earlier in the film. The “non-actors” tell the viewer about their real life. All of them say they were able to survive unemployment and rebuild their lives thanks to the help and inspiration of their families and friends.

Ryan appears to go through a transformation, as he starts caring for others. He writes a glowing letter of recommendation for Natalie that earns her a new job, and he transfers enough miles to his sister and her new husband so that they are able to fly around the world. In the final moments of the movie, as Ryan stares at an airport departures board, he bears the lagged blankness of someone who seems to wonder about the meaning or purpose in his life.

Cinema Alchemy

My client Bob (a factious name), a single, frequently traveling 40-year-old salesman, was recently laid off from his job. This triggered a phase of self-doubt, anxiety, and mild depression. Initially, we had worked with cognitive therapy interventions. During the course of his treatment, Bob saw Up in the Air. He became curious about the movie, because he heard that the protagonist traveled a lot for work as he had.

In response to my inquiry, Bob told me that watching the scenes with the employees who were laid off moved him most. My client felt sad when he heard them talk about the support of their friends and family at the end of the movie, because he did not experience this kind of support in his life. The pain around his own lay-off as well as regrets about missed opportunities to develop supportive relationships surfaced. Bob had almost exclusively focused on his career and making money for a couple of decades. It was easy for him to attract women for casual relationships. As soon they brought in a question of commitment, he became scared.

In several ways, my client saw himself in Ryan. But, in contrast to the movie character, he had questioned his isolating lifestyle for several years. Bob said, “I have absolutely no idea how to change this”. He found himself at a very similar crossroad as Ryan at the end of the film. The very last scene had touched him deeply too.

At this point, I instructed Bob to close his eyes, take several deep breaths, relax, and imagine himself as Ryan at the end of the film. Then I guided him through a visualization process during which he explored “as Ryan Bingham” how to create a more fulfilling life. As the character, Bob encountered an increasing desire to develop more intimate and lasting relationships. He was able to imagine that Ran would succeed in his metamorphosis since the character had left his “backpack” seminar to possibly start a new life with Alex. Imagining himself as the protagonist, Bob imagined a caring and committed relationship in his life as well as close connections to friends and family.

In “Ryan’s shoes”, it seemed easy for him to explore new options and feel hopeful about the future in a way Bob was originally not able to imagine his own future. Now I asked him how he feels (as the character) after this transformation. When Bob told me that he feels a little scared, but also happy and joyful, I instructed him to stay in touch with these feelings as he shifts back to his real self as Bob.

After I guided my client back to his normal waking consciousness, we discussed his experiences. He understood that his “inner Ryan” helped him get in touch with relational capacities that he had not previously acknowledged to himself. I encouraged him to re-visit the imagery that I had introduced him to at home on a daily basis. This process helped Bob shift his priorities. Pretty soon his original presenting problems disappeared. Even when he found work again, he became increasingly more able not to let his career ambitions interfere with his relationships any more.

Theoretical Contemplation

My Cinema Alchemy work with Bob drew from techniques, which are frequently used hypnotherapy or Interactive Guided Imagery work:

  • “Film Re-entry” (similar to “Dream Re-entry”): In trance, clients enter the story of a movie in a certain scene as a specific character or in relation to one that is important to them. The clients let their own story unfold, with guidance from the therapists. Frequently unconscious material gets revealed.
  • “Skill Mastery”: In trance, clients are guided to “become'” a character who modeled desired behaviors and skills. This is a way to help them acquire the film character’s attributes or imagined skills.

Guiding Question for Working with Clients

  • Did anything in this movie touch you?
  • What does the fact that this moved you reveal about yourself and/or about your current life situation?
  • Was there a character in the movie who went through a transformation that you would like to experience too? (This can refer to a real transformation of a character or a metamorphosis that the client imagines.)
  • Did a character develop certain strengths or other capacities that you would like to develop as well?

Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT has a private practice in Oakland. She facilitates Cinema Alchemy workshops. She also teaches the therapeutic use of movies to mental health practitioners and graduate students. Her book “E-Motion Picture Magic: A Movie Lover’s Guide to Healing and Transformation” guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy. Her continuing education online courses are also offered as Cinema Therapy Certificate Programs: 37 CE Credit Hours and 14 CE Credit Hours.
Birgit can be reached at (510) 919-6943 or Informational Web site:

Posted by permission, © 2010 Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT

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