Up In The Air

December 29th, 2009

upintheair.jpgI accrued 49,000 AAdvantage miles this year. Not Ryan Bingham numbers, to be sure. But enough to get myself to Puerto Rico and back (if I could only find available departure dates).

His is a familiar world: the poetic geometry of the Midwest from 30,000 feet, the satisfaction of finding one’s name on the Hertz Gold board, the comforting uniformity of Starwood hotel rooms Admirals Clubs everywhere.

Sure, I loathe take-offs (though I get by with a little help from my friend, Xanax), but I love flying. I love the anonymity, the disconnection, and dislocation. It will never fail to amaze me that I can fall asleep on one side of the country and wake up on the other. For a few hours, as I wrote here in February, I am nowhere at all.

I’m flying home now, somewhere in the night sky high over America. Judging by the amount of time we’ve spent airborne, I’m betting we’re somewhere over Iowa. A dozen cities — clusters of orange-lit grids from here — dot the black and white earth below. A single white light at the end of our wing marks the horizon where a gauzy-gray haze ends and inky-black space begins. It’s precisely the kind of vista bi-coastal executives tend to take for granted or, worse, miss entirely.

It’s not the familiar, well-considered aesthetics of Jason’s Reitman’s “Up In The Air” that moved me to sneak out of work early to screen it a few days after its premiere, and then drag the in-laws a few weeks later.

“Up In The Air” is the perfect film for our times. It is haunted by uncertainty: job security, love, home — everything is up for grabs. The corporate landscape is bland and blank, strewn with empty Aeron chairs and vacant cubicles. Layoffs are conducted via iChat, breakups via text message. The characters are everywhere, and nowhere at all.

“The slower we move,” Ryan says, “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.”

As subtle, nuanced, and nearly-invisible character arcs go, Bingham’s is a classic. He is the Rick Blain of The New Millennium, the Jerry Maguire of The Naughts, a commitment-phobe of the highest order. (Been there.) He soars effortlessly through life, anonymously seeking a meaningless, modern, corporate goal: his ten millionth AAdvantage mile.

What Reitman nails, though, and what distinguishes the film from typical Hollywood drivel, is Ryan’s slow awakening. There are no fireworks here, no right angles, only slow, steady eye-openers. Like life.

Best yet, “Up In The Air” left me thinking for days. And it was only then that I understood the film’s ambivalent ending. Having lost what he thought was his one, true love but found (of course) himself (and his ten million miles), Ryan stands before the airport departures board and lets go of his roller bag. Suddenly, we are soaring amidst dusky clouds.

“Some night soon,” Ryan says in plaintive voice over, “You’ll look up from your backyard. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places; and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip passing over.”