Up in the Air

A tale of cynicism and love in conflict, of reality and escape, isolation and human connection, techonology and humanity. Ryan Bingham works for a company that fires people. He spends 270 days a year on the road, or rather, in the air, flying around to companies firing them. And he is a pro. He’s got his life in a backpack, light and without messy human encumbrances. But when a young new girl at the company, Natalie, inspires a new idea of using computer terminals to fire people remotely, and thereby save hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses and time, Ryan reacts with hostility. Not just because his job is in jeopardy of becoming obsolete, but because, ironically, Ryan still cares about the humans to whom he is bringing bad news. He believes that they need the personal connection to help them “down from the ledge” of depression or despair. So he fights to protect that humanity, while simultaneously remaining a remote person to love, an island of self protection from the dangers of self-disclosure and vulnerability. In short, he is an unbeliever in love – he is a rock, he is an island. Sounds of Simon and Garfunkle ringing in my ears.

As Ryan also speaks at conventions about how to live life in a backpack, we hear his philosophy of life of shedding the weight of traditional life. We can see that it is a rationalization of his own solitude, which he revels in. But herein lies the key to his sympathetic stature with the viewer. Ryan is honest, he doesn’t lie or play games, he keeps it all up front that he doesn’t want marriage, doesn’t want kids, doesn’t want a house to tie him down, doesn’t want the “cultural baggage” of what most people consider “normal life” of “settling down.” In short, he is truthful and honest man, a kind of integrity of openness without secrets or a closet where he hides a dark side. So when he meets Alex, a beautiful woman who has the same traveling lifestyle and same “no commitments” approach, he has an on the road “romance” with her of traveling fornication.

And then Ryan has to bring Natalie along with him to teach her the ropes of personal care in firing people that he is so good at. Young Natalie is a 23 year old who wants to have a career, get married, get a house, yada yada. But when her boyfriend breaks up with her, her world is crushed because she is an incurable romantic who even moved to nowheresville Oklahoma to be near her boyfriend. In other words, she made choices of a traditional belief in love and was betrayed.

The struggle here is between traditional love, which requires vulnerability in order to attain the intimacy of human connection or the modern atomistic alienation of individuals as monads of self interest. The former means you can be betrayed and you will most likely suffer in life but can of course experience that human intimacy which brings shalom (shades of Tennyson, “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all), and the latter means you will never be burdened with the “baggage” of others, you will never be betrayed and saddled with unfair expectations and demands, that you will be “free” to control your own life – and of course live and die alone in this life. Natalie makes the argument that what about the base notion of just having companionship, children there when you die. To which Ryan responds, that is a delusion. Most people put their parents in nursing homes at the end anyway, just as he did and his parents did before him. Everyone dies alone. More shades of Ecclesiastes.

But the problem is that we see Ryan falling in love with Alex.

A particularly poignant moment is when Ryan’s sister’s fiancé is getting cold feet on his wedding day, and Ryan is asked to go in and talk to him. Well, not only does Ryan not have a relationship with his sister (no attachments), here he is supposed to convince someone of something he doesn’t believe in. But he does it. And he does it by admitting all the crap and responsibility that the kid is afraid of, but he ends by getting the kid to realize that all his best memories of life are with somebody, not alone, and that the lonely sad times are when he is alone, so “life’s better with company. Everyone needs a co-pilot.” And it is at this moment that Ryan has shared out of his own lonliness and finally realizes he doesn’t believe in his lie of self-protection and solitude, that he too needs to be known and loved. He walks out of the middle of his next seminar on backpacking life, and runs to the airport (the formula “running to the airport” scene) and flies to Alex’s home, presumably to tell her he wants to spend the rest of his life with her, for her to be his co-pilot. So when he discovers she is married with children and considers their tryst only as a sexual escape from her boring “real life” he is devastated.

But her betrayal is not just of his romantic innocence, because even though she never told him about the family, she also was up front that a sexual tryst was all she wanted. She lured him into love and then cut his heart out with her own heartlessness. The monster has met his match with someone more monstrous than him, and he lost. What’s worse, Natalie, after hearing that someone committed suicide after she fired her, gives up her job and applies for a job that she really prefers. In her interview we discover that as the interviewer says regarding her decision to choose love over her career (in moving to Omaha to “follow a boy”) “I guess everyone does that at one point or another.” And we see her now prioritizing her career over love.

At the end, we are shown “live interviews” of people who found their significance and overcame their job firings by clinging to family over career and money. YET, Ryan ends up back in the air, perpetually alone, without a co-pilot, flying in the clouds above the unaware normal happy families. So, as a story, this hero’s journey seems to contradict the more sentimental notions of family and significance of love in its periphery, which I think creates confusing double talk. The hero’s journey is the one we sympathetically go on and are cheering for, yet just when he is changed in his character arc to accept love, he is burned by it and ends up alone rather than realizing he chose the wrong one. By returning to his old ways, it seems to suggest that he cannot achieve love even if he changes to be a lover. Meanwhile, his sympathetic side kick, Natalie, seems to lose her romantic notions of family and significance and ends up prioritizing career, which is what brought Ryan to the very troubles he suffered. She appears to be turning into him, and losing her hope of love. So, to me this story is ultimately cynical about love, because it shows “extras” pining on about love and significance in family, but the two main characters lose all hope for love and embrace career instead. Perhaps you could call this an “anti-romance” because it takes the typical love story of someone learning that love is more important than career and turns it on its head in the Hero’s own journey, as well as his sidekick’s. It makes the argument in the dialogue for the necessity of human connection and need, but then denies it to the hero and his reflection, Natalie. (A reflection is a character in the story who reflects the same pursuit as the hero but with different choices in order to illustrate antithesis that supports the main thesis or theme of the story).

Perhaps the theme of the movie is best encapsulate in Alex’s words when speaking to Natalie’s betrayal by her boyfriend, a “prick.” Alex says, “We all fall for pricks. Pricks are spontaneous, unpredictable and fun. And we’re all surprised when they turn out to be pricks.” This is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s remark:

“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our [educational] situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that our civilization needs more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [hearts] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
— C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man