Up In The Air

By

Our guest contributor today is Elijah Davidson. He is a long time Rabbit Roomer and some may remember him as the winner of our Theolo-Vision (TM) contest a couple of years ago. He’s also a student at Fuller Theological Seminary and a contributor to the Brehm Center’s blog where he often tackles issues at the juxtaposition of theology and art. I hope you’ll give this Theolo-Visionary a warm welcome. -Pete Peterson


 

“The worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it.” -Oscar Wilde

Where is your source of stability? What do you depend on? In the midst of the turmoil of life, where is peace? What is your hope?

For many, financial security is the bedrock of their lives. We work hard in our chosen fields. We go to school to obtain a higher degree and become more skilled. We save and invest. We do all of this in hopes that these practices will ensure a pleasant, peaceful life.

Then one day we find ourselves sitting across from a man like Ryan Bingham, and he has come to tell us that our foundation is being ripped from beneath us. We are losing our jobs. “Your hope,” he says, “is no hope at all. Take this packet, and let us begin helping you rebuild your life.”

Ryan Bingham, played by a never-been-better George Clooney, is the central character in Up in the Air, and his job is traveling around the country letting people know they have been let go. He is the god of wealth’s angel of death, flitting through the clouds and descending only to bring judgment on the unsuspecting worshipers below. He does this coolly, calmly, and without remorse.

But he is also human, and to become Mammon’s harbinger of doom he has had to detach himself from all consequential relationships. He loves and is loved by no one. Women are play things, other men are adversaries, and family is an annoyance. “Relationships are weight,” he says, “To carry them is to be slowed down, and to move is to live.”

The narrative’s central crisis is created when Bingham learns that like the thousands he has spent his life firing, his way of life is in jeopardy. A hot-shot young woman (Anna Kendrick, wonderfully liberated from the Twilight franchise) has arrived on the scene to revolutionize the way Bingham’s company fires people, and he isn’t going to be able to live disconnected any longer. He’s going to have to land in Omaha, a place where he has no reason to be except that the city houses the headquarters of his employer.

Up in the Air is essentially two films in one. On each end of the film and interspersed throughout are montages of people reacting to the news that they are losing their jobs. In these moments the film becomes a lament over the economic storm that we have weathered through the past year. Many of the people pictured in these moments are not actors. They are people who have recently lost their jobs. We see their actual reactions to finding out their hope has failed them. The audience lives vicariously through these people. We commiserate with them in their angst. We ask with them, “When our supposed hope fails us, to what do we hold?”

The second foci of the film concerns the purpose of relationships in our lives. “Make no mistake,” Bingham chides Nathalie, “We all die alone.” Why then, should we invest in one another?

“Ah ha!” you’re thinking, “I know where this movie is headed. The second question answers the first.” You’d be right in most films, but Up in the Air doesn’t offer such easy answers. Like Ecclesiastes, Up in the Air admits that loving relationships are a balm to life’s bruises, but also like Ecclesiastes, the film doesn’t picture love as a cure-all.

This film as a whole is more honest that most others. It is a brave work, because it is willing to point out our brokenness and to admit it’s inability to provide an answer. It is truly compassionate both to the character of Ryan Bingham and, by way of the people in the film who lose their jobs, to the audience. This is not a trite film in any way.

Like the slave masters who were kind to their slaves, most movies freely give false hope to their audiences. Up in the Air doesn’t want you to remain in slavery, and so it doesn’t offer easy answers. It doesn’t lie to its audience by saying that romance solves all problems. Some will see this film as sad and depressing and unsatisfying. It is these things, but the filmmakers should be applauded for honestly saying, “This is the world as we see it and as we surmise our audience sees it as well. It is a broken place, and we mourn over that, and we have no answers.”

This is the place where we, as bearers of the hope of Christ, must step in and give the Answer that has found us. We have true Hope in the face of economic misfortune. We have a reason for relationships. We see past death. “Saints love beyond Time’s measure,” the hymn sings (“All Flesh Is Grass”). It is our duty to answer Ryan Bingham’s cynicism with, “No, Ryan. We don’t all die alone, because we know One who has already died for us.


11 Comments

  1. Jesse D

    An excellent analysis, Elijah. While I haven’t seen this movie yet (I haven’t been able to justify spending $12 on movie tickets; $10 I was sort of all right with, but $12 is my limit, and I think I will now just wait for DVD on all but the rarest of movies), I fully intend to when it’s released on DVD or if it goes to the discount theater in my area. Jason Reitman’s a film maker I admire greatly.

  2. elijah

    Thank you, Jesse. I too really enjoy Reitman, and I hope he and Sheldon Turner take home the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay this year as they did with the Golden Globes.

    I agree about movie prices too. I was able to see this film twice before writing this review because of the kindness of a friend who is a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild and had an awards copy sent to him to watch before voting. He kindly allowed me to watch with him.

  3. elijah

    I should clarify – the first time I saw the film, I saw it in the theater.

    I live in L.A., and movies can cost more the $12 for a post-matinee showing here.

  4. Jesse D

    I live in the Seattle area. Recently movies jumped from $10.50 to $12 for a general admission movie ticket here. It’s ridiculous. I’m hoping at some point there will be a backlash against Hollywood’s big-budget frenzy and they’ll have to start making films with better writing and fewer special effects to keep people coming. But alas, with Avatar, it looks like the trend will just be towards bigger and more expensive films with “EVEN BETTER” special effects.

  5. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    $12 is a lot but I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable. It’s the price of a meal at Cracker Barrel.

    Seeing a play or a musical or even reading book will cost you more than that. I think Americans have become a bit spoiled by our appetite for cheap entertainment.

    (I’m sure I’d feel differently if I had kids.)

  6. Jesse D

    I suppose I’d be all right with the increase if I felt it was in tune with inflation in other areas of the economy, but movie tickets seem to be increasing at a much higher rate than seems truly justifiable. Plus, for this new father who is currently the sole supporter for his little family, it puts movie-going pretty much out of reach except for maybe once or twice a year.

    But let’s re-rail here: How about that Clooney guy?

  7. Mikie Ice

    Ticket prices? Cracker Barrel? Cheap
    entertainment? Did I totally miss the
    point here? “When our supposed hope
    fails us, to what do we hold?” The world
    is a broken place and we morn over that,
    and have no answers.”
    Are we ready at all times to give an answer
    for the hope that is with-in us? Have we been
    diligent workers, (disciples) who need not
    to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of
    truth? I will admit, I am not always ready and
    I have not always been diligent in studying
    God’s Word; however, I know beyond a shadow
    of a doubt, Christ Followers have the Answer!!
    That will always be Jesus the Christ….the Way
    the Truth, and the Life…Mighty God, Prince of
    Peace, Rose of Sharron, Lilly of the Valley, Bright
    Morning Star!! George who? Right!! Time to re-rail~

  8. Peter B

    My attention kind of got derailed with that Oscar Wilde quote. Seriously, kind masters are the problem? Somebody should tell that to Jesus.

  9. Profile photo of Elijah Davidson

    Elijah Davidson

    @elijah-davidson

    In the Wilde quote, kind masters aren’t the problem – slavery is, and “kind” masters aren’t really kind at all. They mask the injustice of the system with kindness. They keep the evil of the system from being recognized as such.

    And remember, we’re talking about popular art, not slavery.

    Our world is full of (un)kind masters, “artists” who fill their films with foxy women and giant robots that inebriate us and steal not only our $12 but our aesthetic and moral discernment as well. Such banality dumbs us down. It entertains without edifying. Don’t get me wrong, there is great room in life for great entertainment, but not at the expense of truth.

    And the truth is, without Christ, there is no hope. While Reitman may not profess Christ, he is at least courageous enough to point out hope’s absence. Reitman is unafraid to call slavery bad. He is willing to ask the question and to encourage his audience to ask it as well. I think that’s the first step to finding the Answer.

    I pray he finds it, and I pray we as artists have his courage and are willing to wrestle with life’s complexities, for our sake and for our audiences. And when we can’t find resolution, I pray we resolve to rest in Christ.

  10. Peter B

    Elijah, thank you for the response (and for sticking your neck out by writing an article in the first place).

    You’re absolutely right about the threat that the world poses to our spiritual well-being, and the insidious ways that we are deceived into giving away our life in Christ. I just don’t think that slapping that grid on top of American slavery is a very good fit — at least not in the way Mr. Wilde attempts. What we detest about that system wasn’t servitude as such, but the kidnapping and abuse which characterized it. Kind masters were in fact kind, and when he calls them “the worst”, he ignores the fact that good can come from people inside a poor system; it seems a very irresponsible use of words on his part. Then again, that discussion is probably a bit too lengthy for post-blog-post comments.

    I know what you mean about Reitman; oddly enough, it’s why I appreciate Billy Joel. He acutely understands the problem, even if he still has no idea of the Solution.

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