Up in the Air
- There’s a certain air in American filmmaking occurring at the moment – one that I truly find to be somewhat reminiscent of the American filmmaking of the 1970’s. For both that era and the one we are living today, filmmakers are using the country’s social and economic turmoil as ways to ever-expand their canvases and to layer their work with more dark, hard-hitting, visceral and resonant themes. Just as the issues of the 70’s such as the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam crisis, and the economic downturn paved way for social apocalypse and gave artistic inspiration for directors such as Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola to paint raw depictions of the state of their country (Network, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now being the more powerful examples for each director, respectively), the issues of today such as the Iraq War and the jarring economic crisis are paving way for a similar turmoil and a similar inspiration for today’s directors. This year bodied forth two films that truly stood out in their resonant representation of a modern America and its festering dilemmas. One was a riveting depiction of our situation in the war in Iraq in Katheryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. The other is a hybrid of comedy and drama, romance and melancholy in what may as well be the definitive portrait of America’s present economic crisis: Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air.
It’s one of the most talked about films of the year, and for good reason. Up in the Air is a film of almost immediate empathy, demanding our attention and surrendering us to its relevance. The film is, first and foremost, a well-rounded character study. Ryan Bingham is a corporate downsizer constantly leaping from one side of the country to the other only to give hundreds of employees the news they fear most: they’ve lost their job. Ryan is a man without a home (though an airport or a hotel room suits him just fine), a man long-since detached from his family, and a man devoid of any sort of love or passion. For him, this sort of detached, roaming lifestyle is the true key to happiness. He preaches his philosophies with motivational speaking sessions entitled “What’s in your backpack?” – his own personal guide for people to realize the true enormity of the material and personal aspects of their life and how better off they would be without them. These philosophies all seem frighteningly tangible for Ryan until two out-of-the-norm happenings occur simultaneously. On the one hand, his job becomes threatened by the evolution of technology once an ambitious young colleague seeks to revolutionize the company by practicing terminations via computers, and on the other, he suddenly strikes a connection with his female counterpart.
Ryan’s character arc becomes one of simultaneous levity and melancholy, an honest portrait of a man who, layer by layer, grows out of his seemingly content lifestyle in order to make up for lost time, be it by reconnecting with family or attempting to settle down, only to find just as many painful hurts as there are joys. Writer/director Jason Reitman’s screenplay, adapted from the novel of the same name by Walter Kirn, beautifully unveils it’s the very subtle, albeit all-so-vital awakening of its protagonist while exploring an acute awareness to today’s times (technology’s rising upper-hand on several corporations and in personal lives in general) as well as brave treading into philosophical territory. It’s a film that, in these times, dares to ask the notorious “what’s the point of it all?” question, but without any intention of being existential, but rather to overcome the banality of living a conformist lifestyle by seeing the appreciation and beauty of the people around us and the passions inside us, as beautifully depicted in one particular scene in which Ryan consoles his sister’s dubious fiancé on the eve of their wedding.
But is it ever too late to change? Is it ever too late to start anew? Those questions may as well be tragically vital to not only the protagonist of the film, but also to the employees in which he breaks the news to and to today’s working people in general. There are various occasions throughout the film when Harry is breaking the unfortunate news to the soon-to-be let go individuals where he tries to console them by saying that all the great artists who were the masters of their craft started out in the same situation and that loosing their job should only be a mere beginning as oppose to an end. This can either be seen as faux optimism that comes out of sympathy, or maybe just legitimately appropriate advice. Either way, it all comes down to what happens when we loose what is considered to be the bedrock of our lives. Careers may as well be the most prized possessions of the twenty-first century, and without them we are, realistically speaking, merely devoid of any identity or sense of respect in society. Ryan acknowledges this and believes that a person’s true identity lies within what they perceive of themselves and what truly makes them happy.
The film is absolutely suffused with bravura filmmaking all around. The screenplay is razor-sharp and filled to the brim with deeply relevant themes, rich characterization, smart dialogue, and an admirable range of philosophical facets. The acting is glaringly natural. George Clooney carries the film with incredible poise in a beautifully subtle, restrained, and oftentimes-melancholy performance that undoubtedly displays the actor at the top of his game. But it’s Anna Kendrick who’s the true scene-stealer, delivering a surprisingly versatile performance that is by turns vibrant, energetic, and comedic and poignant and emotional. But the film’s true achievement is Jason Reitman’s sure-hand as a director. Reitman handles the material with immense confidence and, even more so than his previous works, employs an acute sense to crafting the tone of the film without it ever feeling manipulated in any way. The result is a beautifully crafted hybrid of hard-hitting humor and stirring drama; a film that isn’t afraid of telling it like it is and how it’s about it.