Where Moving is Living

Up In The Air is the story of a 21st century American everyman

The reason Bingham’s character works so well is that he both believes and doesn’t believe his own spiels.
01 March, 2010

THE OPENING CREDITS of Up in the Air roll over a bird’s eye view montage of mountains, canyons and patchwork-quilt farm fields that tessellate across the tidy Midwestern landscape, set to the rousing strains of a  ‘This Land is Your Land’ cover by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Now a classic American song, this folk tune was originally composed by Woody Guthrie—the great Dust Bowl troubadour himself—who spent the Great Depression years travelling across the country with migrant workers from Texas and Oklahoma seeking better fortunes in California, weaving their stories into his songs.

Fast-forward about eight decades. Instead of the Great Depression, enter the Great Recession. America is up to the Empire State spire in crises: Wall Street has been brought to its knees begging for a government bailout, the automobile industry has sputtered to a halt, the housing market is in the gutter, unemployment numbers are through the roof. And while perhaps there may not be a 21st century Woody Guthrie, we do have Ryan Bingham, whose occupation in Up in the Air places him one-on-one with the newly unemployed at their most vulnerable moment. That’s because he’s the one doing the firing.

Contrary to this job description, however, the man we see on the screen is not a soulless monster, a herald of paychequeless despair, a destroyer of careers, or a trampler of carefully nurtured pension plans—and that is because Bingham has charm. Spades of it, in fact. And not the hokey, paper-thin-aw-shucks charm of a Midwestern corporate executive, but genuine, Cary Grant-style charisma. Played by George Clooney, the most disarming man in Hollywood (Dr Doug Ross and Danny Ocean; need more be said?), Bingham is handsome, articulate, and capable of flashing the kind of winning, high school basketball star turned corporate team-player smile that makes women swoon and puts men at ease.

Bingham is employed by a Nebraska-based company whose clientele, made up of bosses all over the United States, is too busy, apathetic or downright afraid to do the downsizing themselves. So they do what 21st century American companies do best—they outsource.

“What we do is brutal,” Bingham says of his job. “It leaves people devastated. But there is a dignity to the way I do it.” Sitting across the table from soon-to-be unemployed employees, he looks them squarely in the eye and reassures them that this is not their fault, that this is an assessment of neither their performance nor their productivity, and that this is, above all else, nothing personal. He then tells them, quite sincerely, that “anybody who ever built an empire or changed the world sat where you’re sitting right now. And it’s because they sat there that they were able to do it. That’s the truth.” (Pause.) “I need your keycard.”

The reason Bingham’s character works so well is that he both believes and doesn’t believe his own spiels; he fully recognises the false notes in the song-and-dance routine his company is selling, and tries to smooth over the dissonance by striking as many true chords as he can. This is not easy, since people’s reactions run the gamut between explosive physical violence and silent, suicidal calm. One of director Jason Reitman’s masterstrokes was that most of the employees who get fired in the movie are actually real people who have lost their jobs. He directed them to either duplicate their own reaction they had to getting fired, or to give it another go—react the way they would have wanted to given a second chance. Looking directly into the camera, these people are remarkably effective: rage, tears, bewilderment, fear, all of their emotions come across as raw, uncoached, believable—disconcertingly real.

A notable exception to Reitman’s casting method is the cameo appearance by JK Simmons, who also played Mac MacGuff, the delightfully awkward, gruff father in Reitman’s previous film, Juno. Here, Bingham tells Simmons’ character, Bob, that his position is no longer available and that he should not despair, but rather take this opportunity to become a chef—a dream he gave up right after college when he was first offered a job at the company that just fired him after 20 years of his loyal service. That Bingham took the trouble of reading Bob’s CV, noticed that he had minored in French culinary arts, and intuited that this hobby was important to him is all to Bingham’s credit. And all of this is communicated in such a way that at the end of their meeting, Bob— and the audience, too—almost believes that a real transformation like that is possible.

If there is one thing in which Bingham believes implicitly, firmly and unwaveringly, it’s his personal philosophy—exemplified most purely in his own ‘up in the air’ way of life. Bingham, whose boss calls him a “road warrior,” is (to put it very mildly) a frequent flier. Spending roughly 11 months of every year away from home, he crisscrosses the lower 48 (continental US) with such avidity that if his travels were traced onto a piece of paper, it wouldn’t resemble a connect-the-dots puzzle so much as a Jackson Pollock painting.

“Make no mistake: moving is living,” he says in a speech called ‘What’s in Your Backpack? It’s one of his motivational lectures he does on the side, in which he articulates his personal philosophy. “Some animals carry each other for a living—star-crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.” Bingham implores the audience to imagine that they are carrying an empty backpack. Then he asks them to fill their backpack with everything in their lives. First the little stuff (knick-knacks, clothes, jewellery), then the bigger stuff (house, car), then all the people in their lives—spouses, kids, parents, friends.

Bingham’s point is that our relationships are the heaviest component of our baggage. He asks his audience members to consider how exhilarating it might feel to wake up one day with nothing—no house, no furniture, no mortgage, nothing to tie them down. Then he goes further, and says that it would be just as exhilarating to wake up one morning and not have to trudge through the day with the heaviest burden of all—our relationships. This is Ryan Bingham’s ‘empty backpack’ philosophy in a hollow nutshell. Happiness lies in not being tied down by anything or anybody. Happiness is being up in the air.

The main thrust of the movie is in the dismantling of Bingham’s empty backpack philosophy. He is forced to reexamine his deepest convictions when two women enter his life unexpectedly.

Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick of Twilight, is a callow but very determined young woman recently hired by Bingham’s company who has notions of revolutionising the firing business. She is 22 and chomping at the bit to make her mark on the world—specifically, on Omaha, Nebraska. Her new plan for the company is to make everything ‘glocal,’ meaning that from now on, Bingham and his colleagues will be firing people via videoconference. In other words, they’re leaving the road and settling down, coming home. Bingham is horrified. In the end, his boss (played excellently by Jason Bateman, also of Juno fame) sends Bingham on the road one last time with Natalie so that he can teach her the ropes. Neither is happy about the arrangement, but they set off nevertheless.

While on their trip, Bingham crosses paths with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a 30-something frequent flier who also gets turned on by elite status and the tawdry, paid-for hospitality of airports, car rentals and hotels. They have a torrid but casual relationship, meeting whenever in the same city at the same time. Midway through Bingham and Natalie’s trip, somewhere between desolate Wichita and desperate Detroit, Natalie’s boyfriend breaks up with her by text message, and she falls apart. Meanwhile, Bingham is falling for Alex.

Ultimately, Up in the Air asks all the big questions. Is it better to be single or to settle down? Is it possible to be married to one’s career and be truly fulfilled at the same time? The most compelling feature of the movie is that it exposes the bankruptcy of both. Neither conventional ideas about monogamous relationships nor more modern ‘moving is living’ views like Bingham’s are failsafe guarantees of happiness. In the end, whichever philosophy one subscribes to, misery is misery. As one of the characters in the movie remarks, “What’s the point?”

This kind of exploration of the possibility of meaninglessness is a refreshing break from the sappy, happy-ending romantic comedies that make up the vast majority of the standard fare today in Hollywood, and it is a testament to the current mood in the US that such a movie was received so well. And Up in the Air does not stand alone; in the last few years, towards the end of the Bush presidency when the recession was just starting to unfurl across the country, movies like the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood were already asking the troubling question: What if none of this really means anything? In both movies, there are no answers, no tidy explanations, no quick deus ex machina solutions, not even any solace. (Consider the final scenes of There Will Be Blood, with Daniel Day-Lewis sitting on his mansion floor, a ruined madman among his hard-earned millions.)

The same is true of Up in the Air. Bingham’s biggest goal in life is to accumulate a certain number of miles (ten million), but not so that he can cash them in or have his name painted onto a plane or even take a trip around the world. The goal of accumulating miles is simply accumulation itself. This being his greatest ambition and his relationship with American Airlines being the only one in his life to which he is unequivocally loyal, Ryan Bingham is, in some ways, a 21st century American everyman. And when crisis comes, he is caught amidst all the whirlwind trappings of capitalism with none of the conventional beliefs in marriage or even monogamy as ballast, and finds himself with no direction home, since home for him is at once everywhere and nowhere.

It perhaps remains to be seen whether or not the very existence of such movies as Up in the Air and their unprecedented box office successes are proof that there is a new, modern brand of nihilism that is flourishing in cinema today. But that Reitman has tapped into a certain melancholy mood that resonates across all races, ages, classes, and state lines is unmistakable.

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Dana E Glauberman; music by Rolfe Kent; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by Ivan Reitman,  Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki and Jeffrey Clifford.