My take: Up in the Air
“How much does your life weigh?” asks George Clooney, playing Ryan Bingham, leading a triple life as a motivational speaker, a “termination consultant”, and the frequent flyer to beat them all.
Up in the Air is probably my favourite travel film. I loved it from the opening credits, showing various American cities from above as a funky version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” played over, followed by Ryan Bingham going through all the steps at an airport, from check-in, through security, to airline lounge.
At that time, I’d spend a month each year flying business class, much it over the States of America, to rack up the points needed for elite status. An exotic, rarefied, fantasy existence in contrast to my everyday life as a night cabbie in Canberra.
The film has several plotlines, all touching each other. Ryan is pursuing a goal of reaching ten million frequent flier miles and achieving super-elite recognition by American Airlines. This ambition is under threat from a twenty-something hotshot, Natalie Keener, tightly played by Anna Kendrick. His airport lifestyle is warmed by sporadic encounters with Alex (Vera Farmiga) a kindred spirit constantly travelling, gathering fistfuls of airline, hotel, car rental loyalty cards.
Ryan’s personal life is arid. He lives in a tiny suite, barely distinguishable from the airport hotels he spends most of his time in. When his next-door neighbour pokes her head in, he is as keen to spend time with her as with Alex. Random encounters with random people are his existence, and he is as engaged with whoever he happens to be sharing a room or an airline seat as anyone else in his life, including his siblings, whom we meet at a family wedding in the second half of the movie.
At a tense moment, he is called in to save things by his sister.
“Aren’t you a motivational speaker?” she asks when he demurs.
“I tell people how to avoid commitment,” he replies. Honestly.
“What kind of fucked-up message is that?”
Ryan talks of decluttering, getting rid of objects, attachments, relationships. His own life epitomises his strategy. He owns little beyond what can fit in a carry-on bag, and the people in his life have little impact. He can move quickly, notching up those miles.
For modern travellers, he is the paramount role model. No hanging around waiting for checked-in baggage. When Natalie joins him on the road, he looks at her clunky suitcase with dismay:
“I really like my luggage,” she says.
“That’s exactly what it is, it’s luggage,” Ryan says, “You know how much time you lose by checking in?”
“I don’t know. Five, ten minutes?”
Ryan has the figures at his fingertips. “Thirty-five minutes a flight. I travel 270 days a year. That’s 157 hours. That makes seven days. You’re willing to throw away an entire week on that?”
We envy the hand luggage only kings of the travel world. They grab their bag from the overhead rack, head off the plane, and are miles ahead of us for the taxi line, the car rental, the hotel express check-in. While everyone else waits, they are relaxing with a cold drink, a pocket full of status cards their key to the perfect lifestyle.
As Ryan tells us in the very first spoken words, “All the things you probably hate about travelling – the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi – are warm reminders that I’m home.”
Seeing the light
Ryan is forced into weighing up his relationships. He saves the wedding day, he makes a move to commit to Alex, he stands by Natalie. He reaches his mileage goal, but instead of a triumph, it is ashes and despair. He gives away a million of his cherished miles as a honeymoon gift for his sister.
We cheer for Ryan. His empty message of moving fast is overtaken by one more solid. Of attachment to friends and family. There are bonus scenes on the DVD showing him moving out of his bleak apartment and settling into something more resembling a permanent home.
Travel is important, we think, but without an anchor to measure it by, it is meaningless. Ryan sees the light and the film ends with messages of hope.
I’ll disagree. Ryan’s original message of avoiding commitment is one of avoiding attachment. His life may be fast-moving, but it is not empty. Natalie tries to sell him on marriage.
“Somebody to talk to,” she says, “someone to spend your life with.”
“I’m surrounded by people to talk to,” Ryan answers. “I doubt that’s gonna change.”
Finding the truth
And it’s true. He brings depth and understanding to his job of firing office workers. He sees their frustrations, their despair, he sets the seeds of hope and the future.
“Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now,” he tells a freshly-jobless employee. “And it’s *because* they sat there that they were able to do it.”*
In a line of work where another might see his clients as numbers to be checked off and ruled out, he takes the time to read their resumes, to treat them with dignity, to acknowledge them as fellow humans. He helps them see the see the silver lining inside their heads.
The most important person in his life is not his boss, his lover, his work colleague. It is the person to whom he is devoting his attention at that moment.
How many of us can say that? Do we see the taxi driver, the hotel maid, the waitress as a real person, with dreams and happiness, despair and doubt? Or are they just part of the background, an obstacle between us and whatever scenery or museum or restaurant we really came to see?
Rich and dense
I have never seen another movie so full of quotable lines as Up in the Air. Not the glib and flippant script of your average movie, one step removed from a comic book, but thoughtful, crafted, deep, resonant. The plot threads and settings weave and diverge, each making up a part of the philosophical tapestry.
This is a movie that works on several levels. It is one for the thinker, one for the traveller, one for the aircraft nerd, one for the student of corporate America and the whole dogged business of travel. Up in the Air is a movie worth watching again.
Go, see it on your nearest seatback screen.
* Ryan’s “empire builder” line is lifted by Natalie in a presentation showcasing the new technology that will end his travelling lifestyle. “That’s my fucking line!” he murmurs to a colleague. In a gem of irony, the colleague is played in an uncredited cameo by Walter Kirn, who wrote the novel upon which the movie is based, including Ryan’s line!
(Images from the movie, copyright Paramount Pictures, reproduced here for review purposes.)