George Clooney’s Up in the Air had prescient insights about how to stay grounded

The Guardian
The Guardian
George Clooney and Vera Farmiga as frequent flyers Ryan Bingham and Alex Goran in Jason Reitman’s 2009 film Up in the Air.

Plane food, cabin luggage and airport security: we’re slowly becoming reacquainted with flying again. But back in 2009, with the release of Up in the Air, no one could have foreseen our new reality. Least of all Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who lives his life in the sky.

Working for a career transition counselling company, Bingham travels across the US and fires people for a living. His side hustle is a mission to reach 10m frequent flyer miles.

Opening with aerial views of paddocks, sprawling cities and runways, Up in the Air implores you to travel. Travelling light (using the rolled clothes method) and passing seamlessly through security body scans, Bingham’s door-to-door transit through the airport is all class. He waves loyalty cards at every entry and every exit; his elite traveller status is sexy, and he knows it.

But back at company headquarters, fresh graduate Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) proposes a new plan for the company, preempting the move to online working and charming company executives with the efficiency and cost-saving benefits of video conferencing. Travel budget slashed! More time with family! What more could you want?

Bingham is good at his job and is tasked with teaching Keener the ropes. Letting staff go gently and with their dignity intact is vital to his craft. He ensures they leave with a glimmer of hope for a better future, instead of rage that makes them want to trash their office.

But Bingham is living the ultimate paradox. He is isolated yet surrounded by people and spends “322 days on the road and 43 miserable days at home” in an apartment that looks less comfortable than any hotel room. With his sister’s wedding looming, his family are eager for him to have a presence in their life and struggle to see the benefits of his transitory lifestyle. His new protege is also perplexed and becomes increasingly frustrated by his persona.
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) in Up in the Air, a film which earned them both Oscar nominations. Photograph: Dale Robinette

However, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), another frequent flyer, gets it. She is equally charmed by travel’s luxury perks (none of us can go past a hotel dressing gown and slippers, right?) and the lure of love threatens to disrupt Bingham’s ordered way of life.

Nominated for six Oscars including best picture, Up in the Air is unassuming, but Juno director Jason Reitman brings the same level of light and dark to this comedy-drama, which is laced with profound sentiments about whether to be wed to work or family, the road or home soil.

Clooney is suave but vulnerable, direct but full of wit. The role earned him his second Oscar nomination for best actor. Alongside him, Kendrick also received an early career nomination for best supporting actress, embodying a polished and driven go-getter, but with a softness similar to that which made her edgy character in 2012 comedy Pitch Perfect so lovable.

The veneer of life on the road does start to crack. In between a gatecrashed party, broken hearts, an uncomfortable wedding gimmick and a fair share of counselling off the clock, just as we have learned in the pandemic era, ethically and emotionally, some things are better done face to face.

A man who has definitely never been paged at the last minute, left something behind at the gate or had to throw out a pair of shoes to free up luggage space, “to know me is to fly with me”, Bingham says. But for most of us, being up in the air is temporary. We return to our family and home. So in the end, he faces the ultimate choice: which will keep him grounded?

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