A Plane Ride through the American Apocalypse

Up in the Air (2009): A Belated Review

Up in the Air, is arguably the most important American film made in the 21st Century. Directed by Jason Reitman, and written by Mr. Reitman and Sheldon Turner, the film stars George Clooney, who plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate hit man, who flies all around the country firing people for a living.

No American movie captures with greater poignancy the total moral bankruptcy of American society and the death of the American soul. In this bleak new world, there is no life outside of work. Nothing matters except one’s career and getting ahead at work.

In this inhuman and soulless landscape, the most mindless and heartless rise to the top. Those who still have a conscience, sink to the bottom.

Ryan, played to perfection by Clooney, is incessantly airborne, and actually spends more days in the air then he does at home. Indeed, home for him has in fact become the act of flying itself. At one point in the film, Ryan is asked where he is from, to which he responds while pointing down at the airplane, “I’m from here.” He has become a man without an identity, and bereft of a human soul. He has also become, although one would never be able to guess it by his suave demeanor and his ever-present smile, a cold-blooded killer, an assassin, and a heartless murderer of his fellow Americans. Yet he is proud of what he has accomplished, and is quite happy and content with his life.

Ryan’s apartment in Omaha, where his company is based, is a metaphor for contemporary American society: Empty, barren, sterile, loveless, and enveloped in a terrifying shroud of loneliness and silence. Indeed, his apartment has even less furniture than the hotel rooms he regularly stays in.

On the surface, our protagonist appears to be quite a likeable fellow, which adds considerable depth to Clooney’s diabolically masterful performance. Equally impressive are Vera Farmiga, who plays Alex Goran, and Anna Kendrick, who plays Natalie Keener.

Alex and Ryan first meet in a hotel bar, where the two engage in a kind of capitalist strip poker, both whipping out their wallets and throwing their elite cards on the table: The Hilton Honors Card, the Hertz Gold Card, elite credit cards for racking up miles, credit cards for those with only the finest credit. They are, in the words of Alex, “both turned on by elite status.”

As it turns out, Alex is even more soulless than Ryan, and her treatment of him ultimately tests his belief in his unfeeling and self-absorbed philosophy. Which brings us to a critical motif of Up in the Air: How romantic relationships can profoundly mirror how Americans are treated at work. Since workers can be sacked at a moment’s notice, and without cause, why not dismiss one’s lover with a text message?

In Ryan’s company, which is exclusively devoted to the firing of Americans, arguments abound, not over the morality of the heartless act, but rather, over how the firings should be done. Newcomer Natalie proposes that the firings be done electronically over a computer screen. This rouses the resentment of Ryan, who delights in incessantly flying all over the country carrying out his solemn duty of lopping off heads for the plutocracy.

Natalie has graduated at the top of her class from Cornell. In a world where everything is upside down, and where the “best and the brightest” are all too often the most brainwashed and the most reactionary, it is only fitting that she should, upon graduation, take a job firing people for a living. Natalie initially appears even more cold-blooded and icy than Ryan, but a series of events will unfold which will cause her to question this rather dubious form of employment.

In this barren wasteland, where both national and local communities have disintegrated and all but disappeared, absolutely nothing matters except getting ahead at work. If a worker at Ryan’s company were to speak out against the practice of mass firings, would it not be they who would then be fired? And would it not be they who would then be plunged from the ranks of the assassins to the ranks of their victims? With the working class destroyed, and the middle class under a ruthless and devastating assault, one is either in the ranks of the master or with the ranks of the slave.

As dictated by the underlying mores of 21st Century American society, Ryan, Natalie, and Alex all view themselves, and are undoubtedly viewed by a great many others, as “winners.” What matters is that they have great salaries, drive nice cars, stay in fancy hotels, and eat in expensive restaurants. What they have had to give up to get these things is irrelevant. They are all warriors and survivors, but they are also mindless soulless automatons, who will blindly obey any order to get ahead at work.

Advancing one’s career is no longer a means to an end to do good, but rather, has become an end until itself. Ryan, Natalie, and Alex are all proud of what they have accomplished. At the temple of selfishness where they worship, there is no shame, only joy in the blood monies that they have earned, and the material possessions which they have accumulated. This is particularly true of Alex, who proves to be the greatest assassin of them all.

When Ryan goes to a family wedding, we see how estranged he has become from those who were perhaps once close to him. Work has usurped the position once held by the family. Ryan’s life mission as a crusader for capital has caused him to reject, and to teach others to reject, meaningful long lasting relationships. Humans have become disposable commodities, but it is in this atomized landscape of inhumanity that he has come to feel most free.

Ryan feels absolutely no remorse or sympathy for the thousands of Americans he has fired and continues to fire. He is too busy dreaming of his infantile goal of being just one of seven people to have reached ten million miles.

At one point in the film, Ryan’s boss, who could be the very devil himself, and who delights in sadistically watching his henchmen sacking humiliated Americans over a computer monitor, tells the entire staff of corporate lackeys how horrible things are. Virtually ever sector of the economy is in the dumps: Housing is dead, manufacturing is dead. Never before in the history of the country have things been this bad. This is great news he informs his gladiators. The worse the economy gets, the better things are for us! The vultures of capital are gorging themselves.

Up In the Air vividly depicts the horrors of the new post New Deal America, and the war of all against all which has followed. With the nation deindustrialized, and the ruling class waging a ruthless and unprecedented war against its own people, massive numbers of Americans are being plunged into slavery. After the apocalypse, which has all but obliterated even the cultural fabric itself, little remains but the cockroaches.

Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Mr. Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn; director of photography, Eric Steelberg; edited by Dana E. Glauberman; music by Rolfe Kent; production designer, Steve Saklad; produced by Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman, Daniel Dubiecki and Jeffrey Clifford; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

WITH: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Sam Elliott (Maynard Finch), J. K. Simmons (Bob), Zach Galifianakis (Steve) and Chris Lowell (Kevin).

David Penner’s articles on politics and health care have appeared in Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Global Research, The Saker blog, OffGuardian and KevinMD; while his poetry can be found at Dissident Voice, Mad in America, and redtailedhawk.substack.com. Also a photographer, he is the author of three books of portraiture: Faces of The New Economy, Faces of Manhattan Island, and Manhattan Pairs. He can be reached at 321davidadam@gmail.com. Read other articles by David.