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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.