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.