Values in Air Travel

December 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I went to church last weekend. Well, not really. I went to see “Up in the Air.” But the sermon was such a familiar one about American values that as the house lights went up, I expected the audience to do the handshake of brotherhood or whatever non-touching H1N1 substitute is currently in effect.

Here’s the message, sinners. Pursue not selfish career goals, especially in place of human relationships.

We’ve all heard it before. Don’t sacrifice human connection for the sake of individual mobility. It’s a staple of American fiction, movies, and TV. And maybe it is in fact like a church sermon, something we Americans like to hear over and over again each Sunday because we spend the rest of the week doing just the opposite. That seems to be the schedule: M-F, Achievement/Success; Sunday, the sermon about relationships (Saturday is more open, though shopping, fixing up the house, and kids’ soccer games are strongly encouraged).

The nice thing about “Up in the Air” is that it doesn’t stack the deck so obviously (pardon the abrupt change of metaphor). Make no mistake – the central character, Ryan Bingham, is all about mobility. He spends most of the year traveling. His main goal in life is to accumulate ten million miles and get the sacred black airlines card possessed by only a handful of other fliers. He disdains relationships. He never married – all sex is causal sex – and he’s distant from his siblings and their families. And, he repeatedly tells us, that’s the way he likes it.

And what is his job that requires so much time away from home (not that he has a home; his apartment is bare, his refrigerator empty)? He fires workers. Their own employers are too fearful or incompetent to do it well or do it at all, so they hire Bingham’s firm. Bingham loves his job, and he does it very well.

OK – a guy who like firing people, wants no real relationships, and aspires mostly to a small, black plastic rectangle because almost nobody else has one. In most movies, you’d dislike this guy from the moment he walked into the frame. You’d easily reject him and his values. But with “Up in the Air” you can’t, mostly because it’s George Clooney. I mean, you just cannot dislike George Clooney. The film makes it even easier to like him by giving him a young apprentice – a 23-year-old MBA – who wants to make firing people even less human by instituting an online version. With her austere suits, severely pulled-back hair, and impersonal style of speaking, she makes Clooney’s character look even nicer.

The movie is worth seeing – most critics gave it high marks (check it out at MRQE) – so I won’t go more into the plot except to say that the ending (possible hint of a spoiler here) doesn’t cheat. The ending also shares something with “Funny People” and very few other American films that I can think of offhand. (However, in other ways, the ending of “Funny People,” as I noted here, does cheat.)

Here’s the trailer. It says pretty much what I just said.


mike3550 said...

Maybe Clooney' character could have just used this trick to get that little black card.

Jay Livingston said...

I heard this on the news this morning but didn't make the connection to the movie. Neither did anyone else as far as I can tell from a quick search in Lexis-Nexis and Google news. Except you.