“The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) Up in the Air

“I don’t want to die. I want out.”

Passenger aboard Christmas Day Flight 253

“Freedom is not so much a right as a duty . . . It is never a release and always a responsibility. It is not `fun’ but the heaviest burden laid on man: to decide his own individual conduct as well as the conduct of society, and to be responsible for both.”

Peter Drucker, The Future of the Industrial Man, 1942

Let’s get the obvious —not out of the way— but listed: Who wants to be “up in the air” after another Islamic terrorist managed to board Flight 253 and almost blow it up on Christmas day? Could it be that the global economy at this New Year moment is totally “up in the air” as to whether we’ve “recovered” or not? Will the shouted panic of “I don’t want to die. I want out” aboard Flight 253 be shouted all over the world if terrorists eventually learn “the chemistry of high-temperature charges needed to detonate compact high explosives”? Up in the air.

There’s much which makes the title of the movie Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) ironic even though after 9/11 irony was announced as dead. Up in the Air is un-self-reflexive about all that makes the title ironic. Its concerns are nonetheless significant, interesting, timely and not without irony. Here you have a detached man whose job it is to detach others from their employment. He’s a hired terminator going from city to city firing people. It’s a growing business in a depressed economy, the preferred nomenclature being “outplacement.” The terminator, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, lives a life of “outplacement”: he has consciously placed himself outside the normal itinerary of life, preferring a constantly changing itinerary that puts him more up in the air than on the ground. To be on the ground in Bingham’s view is to become ensnared in the muddled lives of others, needless stuff and, most feared, the fated trajectory of human life from birth to death. Somehow if you remain up in the air, ungrounded, you fly by or over all the milestones and benchmarks that signal to Bingham tragedy and not fulfillment. If you’re up in the air most of the time you fly over the serious stuff that wears you out, the stuff that that promises to reveal something or settle something or improve something but never does.

One way of looking at the movie—call it the “constructive” way—is to think that Bingham learns in the course of the movie that when you avoid the serious in life no one makes you a serious part of their life. You become, as Alex (Vera Farmiga), a woman he assumes is as totally an air borne wanderer as himself, no more than a parenthesis in another’s life. I am reminded of the irony of Ralph Touchett’s name in Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady for he is a man dedicated to not touching anything in the world and not being touched by anything, a man of dedicated detachment. There are more perils of detachment, the scariest perhaps is the inevitable self absorption and self obsessiveness, the inevitable collapse inward into a privileging of self concern in proportion to a withdrawal from outward concerns, including the lives of others. Detachment can create a monster of steady self-reference, a narcissism and egoism that expands to inhuman proportions.

In this “constructive” view of the movie, Bingham doesn’t or hasn’t yet reached this sad state but you get a glimpse when in response to the question as to whether Bingham thinks a woman who says she will throw herself off a bridge will really do it he says he doesn’t ask himself questions like that. Detachment requires him to abort any deep or lasting interest in others. That kind of attitude toward human interrelationship would in time show through the confident smile and lively patter of Bingham the way whitened bones eventually show through a rotting corpse. We don’t see this. Detachment hasn’t corrupted Bingham’s soul; he is not dark. He is in fact likeable and his adopted philosophy of life somehow appealing. Why? Bingham is not Goethe’s traveller, his Wilhelm Meister who is taken through an apprenticeship of self-discovery and then sets out on his travels into the lives of others. Goethe’s idea of human self-development involved a gradual connection with others and an eventual displacement of one’s own ego. Bingham’s apprenticeship of the self has begun with the self and ended there. He should be a monster. He is not.

There is no better way to maintain a disconnect than being up in the air. There is something appealing and not perilous about his detachment, something appealing about being up in the air here in the U.S. and now at the beginning of a new decade.

The past decade is a decade which begins in fear—remember Y2K?—and ends with “I don’t want to die. I want out.” It is also the decade of so-called social networking from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter which amounts to no more than cyber dominions where one, a royal One, friends and “unfriends” —the most popular new word of 2009—as one pleases, all such trafficking contracted now into one hand-held device. Confine the fear and trembling of sudden terrorist attack to a Macro-level and the social networking to a Micro-level and think of the latter as a defensive gesture against the former, in the fashion of a turtle sticking its head into its shell when the surround gets fearful. What characterises both the Macro paranoia driven by a “politics of fear” and the withdrawal into cyber enclosures or privatised worlds is the relentlessness of daily blog accretions or the burden of updating either one’s status or being updated, as paranoia requires, on the newest endangerment. Withdrawal into a privately created cyberspace where you and your closest four thousand “friends” keep daily track of each other’s lives has so overpowered whatever may go on “off-line,” whether it be the latest message from bin Laden or the latest tsunami from Mother Nature, that our retreat into “on-line” self-designed space seems natural. A matter of progress.

But consider that such retreat is really us on the run from an “off-line” life that has grown so terribly fearful that we can’t handle it, that only when we reduce it to the size of our Facebook website and retain magisterial, imperial total command of it can we go on with our lives. Is this not a form of disconnect, of detachment that has been made before Bingham makes his own stand, formulates his own way of distancing himself? And in some way then isn’t Bingham’s detachment from a messy, dangerous world appealing because the whole culture has already made such a detachment?

Bingham doesn’t go on-line but goes up in the air. His brand of separation is not a cyber-separation. When the young honours graduate with impeccable credentials, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), proposes an “on-line” arrangement for “letting people go,” for “outplacement,” Bingham goes on the attack. He’s rattled to the core of his being for Natalie is bringing him to ground, putting him in one place, giving him a part in life’s drama so clearly enounced by the reluctant groom: graduation, job, marriage, kids, empty nest, retirement, death. He convinces his boss Craig (Jason Bateman), who is enamored of the cost effectiveness of the cyber style of firing people, that Natalie needs to go “up in the air” with him and do the job face to face in order to appreciate the difficulties involved. It is not, at this point, that Bingham sees any benefit to face-to-face terminations, any preference for human attachment rather than detachment.  He is fighting for the kind of job that keeps him “up in the air.” But in chaperoning Natalie into the “off-line” world and the ways in which it confounds her “on-line” solutions, Bingham begins to learn the importance of human attachments. He responds to his own pitch.

Faces on computer screens can’t get the job done. There will be dire consequences to overriding the face-to-face contact, something missed that inheres in the flesh, that flashes in the eye, that arranges itself in the real world that the cyber hook up cannot transmit. This “outplacement,” this “letting you go” event is not “up in the air.” It’s an event, like a sister’s wedding, for which you have to come to ground. When Natalie learns that someone they fired has thrown herself off a bridge, she walks away from the termination-at-a-distance system she herself has created. When asked if he recalls the termination interview with the suicide, Bingham twice denies remembering. But we do and we know he does. He had admitted to not thinking about such matters but now we know he does. We know that his detachment has been tempered. When he donates a million miles so that the newlyweds can go on a honeymoon trip they cannot pay for themselves, we know that his detachment has been tempered. Other people matter to him.

Call this a moral detachment, moral because it doesn’t substitute the virtual and the self-designed cyber landscapes of one’s own ego for the world. The detachment itself is perilous only if it becomes an escape such as this, or if it nurtures the monstrosity of an enclosed selfhood, irrelevant to the lives of others, as inconsequential as a parenthesis. Detachment then has its virtues, the heart of which Bingham actually represents in his motivational talks. There is a liberation to be felt when we separate ourselves from the pack we have filled with all the stuff we have gathered in our lives. But how we are to take all the drama of human relationships and concerns in our pack and put them outside ourselves is a matter that the Buddhist undertakes with much concerted discipline but Bingham admits to no such grand purpose or method. He will, it seems, at movie’s end come to ground on occasion for rare fulfillment that can only be achieved through others. But there remains virtue in detachment and some promise in his own pitch to every “outplaced” person that the moment of termination is an epiphany, a moment which opens to new, previously unimagined possibilities.

In a world of grievous unemployment this must be ironically greeted. And yet if the “outplaced” has been so attached to a job in a global market climate where no transnational corporation avows any loyalty to its employees, when workers are moveable pawns in a for-profit chess game, it seems that commitment and detachment are called for. There are all manner of attachments in the world that Bingham flies over that we might as a society develop a policy of detaching ourselves from – from stock portfolios and credit cards to home ownership. And strange to say, when Bingham is up in the air, he is detached from the fears that wrack us on the ground, from the sort of fear that Shakespeare so eloquently ascribes to cowards.

I regard everything I’ve said to this point as a packaging of the film, comparable to the way Bingham neatly arranges his carry-on pack. He eyes the compactness of it all and zips it up. Nothing bulges or spills out. Of course the outsized photo he agrees to take around with him doesn’t fit. It represents other people and he has yet to find room for them in his life. But there’s no comparable neatness to our understanding of the film. We think there is because we’ve bought Bingham’s pitch, if you will. The face-to-face has won us over. We’ve accepted the packet —the film itself— that answers all our questions. We’ve gotten to think that detachment and connection are easy, are do-able, that we can easily know when to go up in the air and when to come to ground, when to separate and when to commit, when to engage the world we live in and when to disengage. None of that is clear; the film reveals less than we think. We need to unravel what we’ve ravelled. We need, I think, to pay more attention to the time and place of flight. We need an “unravelling” view.

“What do you want?” Alex asks Bingham after he discovers that she’s not really dedicated to being up in the air in the existential way he is. She has a family that apparently anchors her life and gives it core meaning. Bingham has no answer to what do you want beyond accruing ten million miles of being up in the air. “The guy with the most miles in the end wins.” This is code easily deciphered within a cultural imaginary that has increasingly distanced itself from everything but self-interest and quick profit. Perhaps one who worries about the increasing man-made toxicity of the planet wants an end to global warming. Perhaps the humanitarian wants to put human rights before profit. Perhaps the Social Democrat wants to redistribute the wealth and diminish poverty. Perhaps the scientist wants to find a cure for cancer. Perhaps the Animal Rights advocate wants to give the lower orders the same rights granted corporations. Perhaps the Feminist wants to bring the sexist Taliban to its knees. Perhaps Christian Fundamentalists want Israel to defeat its enemies so that the scenario of the Rapture can unfold. Perhaps Islamic fundamentalists want to see the Koran trump capitalism. And so on. The American cultural imaginary—the imaginary out of which this film is produced and for which it is produced—is divided in about half regarding what it wants: half want some or all of what I’ve listed and half reject those wants and want only what they choose to want. Half are attached, with a variety of intensity, to all manner of issues outside themselves—both worldly and heavenly matters—and half are attached to their personal choices and the power of self-will to project those choices onto the world and make them happen.

So in answer to Alex’s question, the Worldly Focused have much to say which concerns “conditions on the ground,” including other people, the Self Focused have much to say which concerns themselves. They are “up in the air” regarding other matters, by which I don’t mean undecided or confused but simply distant and removed. When the self can trump all around it, all around it can easily be greeted with a “whatever.” Ten million miles is code for ten million dollars simply because self-interest pursues dollars and not miles.

To those who manage to keep their eye on their own interests and avoid the many distractions of “foreign” matters—all and more than I’ve listed above—Bingham is a compelling, charismatic figure. And he is played by George Clooney as such. He enjoys the fruits of his detachment, from the red carpet treatment and perks, his array of prestigious credit cards, and his generous corporate per diem for all expenses. We see no sign in Bingham that being “up in the air,” being disconnected from anything but his own choices, has sullied his charisma and self-confidence. He’s a travelling man who finds love when he wants it on his own terms and without commitment. Alex had already told us what Bingham wanted: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” Others will become what you need them to be, or they will have no existence for you.

Is this very far removed from what Oprah Winfrey confirms as “The Secret”—project a personal will into the world, choose what you want and it will happen? What need is there then to commit yourself to a world that you can bend to your will? The detachment of a personal space from the world “out there” has grown in popularity among those who now sit and watch this movie. There are now, I would suggest, few perils to detachment, to being “up in the air,” that a culture with an eroding public sphere and a growing privatising and personalising of what was formerly societal are able to express. A mutual interdependence and societal commitment has given way to a web of networking designed by an individual to make as much use of others as possible in the pursuit of personal ends. In order to be so fully committed to one’s own interests, one’s own choices, one must remain detached from causes and commitments that lie beyond one’s own interests of the moment. Dedication to yourself shuffles you away from the imprisonment of the undertakings of others. The idea of “personal liberty” is within this American cultural imaginary more powerful than ever now that cyberspace enables the creation of private YOUniverses. The more you can detach your actions from others and the possible consequences to society the freer you are. Only socialists believe that the personal is embedded in the social and that few acts remain “up in the air” devoid of consequences to everything on the ground. And every American knows that socialism is a failed project because it failed to enable us all to be “up in the air” about everything but ourselves.

So…in the “unravelling” view there is a distinct political dimension to this movie which confounds what I’ve called a “moral detachment” whereby one can balance detachment and commitment. You want to be “up in the air” because it’s where all advocates of personal liberty want to be. The appeal then of Bingham lies in this association, a Libertarian one which has great appeal at this moment in the U.S. where “Tea Party” enthusiasts are damning President Obama as a Nazi and a Socialist (!) and shouting for the end of everything that inhibits their “personal freedom.” They want to leave behind all the attachments of government, banks, bail outs, war, taxes, globalism and what have you and …go “up in the air” and be free.

It is not, in the end, that the “up in the air” life that Bingham leads is a sober, constructive lesson to us all on the dangers of caring for nothing, for asking first what anything can do for him, for only wanting something that begins with the words “ten million.” Rather Bingham is a reflection of where we want to be and where certainly “conditions on the ground,” which are rapidly transferring to “conditions on-line” —and are already that for those born after 1980—have shaped what we want to be. What the word “engagement” means in the American culture out of which this film emerges has since Ronald Reagan meant entrepreneurial engagement and that has been aggressive, acquisitive, and antagonistic. Absorption and assimilation of what has been dominated mocks every non-entrepreneurial notion of engagement and commitment. The grounding force here is the pursuit of self-interest. All of this amounts to a very limited and personalised commitment and engagement, one that knows how to stay “up in the air” regarding everything else. Bingham’s way of life is a display of what already has happened in a culture that is now obtuse to what the perils may be. He is, in short, in this Unraveling view, a much admired shark.

About The Author

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the more recent of which are This is a Picture, and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (Suny Press, 2007), Memory’s Orbit: Film & Culture 1999-2000, (Suny Press, 2003) and Postmodernism: The Key Figures (eds. Hans Bertens & Joseph Natoli, Blackwell, 2002).