The Disappointing Moral of “Up in the Air”

I realize I’m going against the tide with what I have to say about Up in the Air, George Clooney’s new movie. It’s been well-received, not only in the film community, where it was just nominated for several Golden Globes, but also in the travel community.  There are many things I enjoyed about the movie, similar to what other frequent-traveler reviewers have pointed out: the portrayal of the rituals of travel — the practiced sweep of the eye while selecting a security line, the glory of bypassing a crowded line with an elite status card, the sure knowledge that comes with knowing how to pack a suitcase, and of course, the beautiful view of multiple cities as seen from the air.

We frequent, passionate travelers live an alternative lifestyle. As for anyone who lives outside the mainstream, it’s always something of a relief to see life portrayed with some measure of accuracy, on a screen of any size.

The situation is this: Ryan Bingham plays a corporate downsizing consultant who flies around the country laying people off.  He loves his life on the road — particularly the flying part, he’s avidly collecting frequent flier miles — plus, he’s good at his job. Along comes Natalie Keener, a brash, bright Cornell graduate who wants to replace the in-person firing process with video chat, thus threatening his entire lifestyle.  She ends up traveling with Bingham to see how the job is done, in the meantime, Bingham launches a relationship with fellow road warrior, Alex Goran, who says, alluringly: “Just think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.”

Bingham is portrayed as someone who gleefully escapes all responsibility. He hates his home (a totally empty apartment in Omaha that lacks the charm of a no-tell motel), he finds his family annoying. He has a side business as a motivational speaker, and while we never hear the entire speech, it seems to be about avoiding all responsibility. But all is not what it seems: while Bingham’s task of laying people off is odious, he obviously grasps its implications, and takes that responsibility seriously. Moreover, at the movie’s outset, he is living a life that he has selected, on his own terms, and — uh oh — he’s happy.

In comes the hectoring voice of family values and traditional society, our plucky bright young thing, Natalie. She blasts him for not pursuing a relationship with Alex, for not wanting to own a home, to get married and to have children. She deems him immature, and scorns him for having the temerity to select and enjoy a life of his own choosing.While the movie portrays Natalie sympathetically, I found her the most horrifying of all: “For the love of god will you let me fire someone”, she says at one point to Bingham. What’s more, the voice that speak for society, the voice espousing home and hearth, also sees no conflict in replacing a face-to-face interaction with a computer screen, denying those to be fired the comfort of human contact.

Beware: major spoilers coming after the jump.

But Natalie’s shrieking and his sister’s upcoming nuptials gets Bingham to thinking that maybe he should want what everyone else wants after all.  And when he really goes after it, showing up on Alex’s townhouse door  — he finds out that it was an all an illusion. She’s got a a husband and kids at home in Chicago, and lives an adulterous double life on the road.  Again, the movie’s sympathies seem squarely with her. Huddled in her car later, she calls him on his cell phone and calls him out for coming to her house. What was he thinking? This is her real life, her kids, her family, whereas her traveling life is an escape, fantasy. As for Bingham? In one of the most devastating lines in the movie she deems him a parenthesis.

The movie ends with Bingham back on the road — Natalie’s technological plan fails — only now he’s unhappy and lonely.

Fantastic. That’s what you get for trying to live a life on your own terms.

“Up in the Air” is a movie striving for nuance, but it presents the challenge of integrating travel into modern life without much of it. The movie strongly implies that the only way to have real relationships is to be at home —  and really, to be safest, to never leave with great regularity. (Witness the corrupting influence of travel on Alex.) And yet, there is a curling whiff of jealousy towards people who carve out a life on different terms: Bingham’s sister and her fiancé lack the money to travel, so she asks her friends and family photograph a large cut-out picture of the couple around the country, a la the Roaming Gnome. This, the movie leads you to understand, is a tragedy only of a slightly lesser degree. But it never grapples with that tension.

I would argue that you can travel a lot and also love your home, and the people that live there.  You can maintain connections to the people that matter most to you — technology can be a tool of connectedness and not just of alienation.  In this interview, Walter Kirn, who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based, says that he viewed people who travel a great deal as a different species. Perhaps that’s the problem. We frequent travelers are not a different species, we’re human beings striving to live a life of adventure, movement, and also connectedness. We connect with human beings while we’re traveling, both in the form of new relationships, and with making new connections with people that we also know in our at-home lives. Yes, it’s a challenge to strike a balance,  yes, to travel a great deal entails certain compromises, but what that’s worthwhile does not?

At several points Bingham says “make no mistake, to keep moving is to be alive, to slow down is to die.”  Broadly speaking, I can’t imagine that sentiment is controversial: the enriching value of adventure and new experiences is well understood, as is the danger of ennui. But in the end, the movie sides heavily with those who would be in favor of a settled life of routine. It purses its lips and of the traveling life concludes: that way lies emptiness and the cold metal of a super VIP frequent flier card, where the only people who greet you enthusiastically are the ones who answer your own dedicated 800 number. With that conclusion, I strongly disagree.

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  1. Caitlin December 15, 2009
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