Ryan Bingham has chosen a different life path than most people he knows. Instead of staying in his hometown, reveling in the glories past of high school and the diner down the road, he wanted to leave his roots and his family for his true passion in life: being up in the air and striving for excellence as a motivational speaker. The choices he has made haven’t caught up to him yet, but he is on the path he has chosen that while unorthodox to most leaves him satisfied and content with who he is.
Bingham (played by George Clooney) is at a crossroads in middle age where he has forgone the responsibilities that are normally achieved by most people his age with a house and a picket fence, being married, and maybe having children. He has forgone all that for an industry on the rise sadly at the time the film is set in and for being out on the road and up in the air for 250+ days of the year. He advocates for a life in motion because if he is not moving, he is not actually living.
His work like his constant travel is an unorthodox industry where he works as a human resources consultant traveling both domestically and internationally to do the dirty work of firing or ‘letting go’ employees in person and providing them with transition packet(s) that the company that’s firing them is leaving them with to help them in the ‘transition’ period. It is a rough job that due to the 2008-2009 global recession has made his HR consultancy firm as needed as ever. The one industry at the time that is gaining jobs rather than losing jobs, Ryan finds himself at risk of having his life of work travel outsources to advancements in video technology (about ten years before Zoom and Skype became mainstream).
While Ryan Bingham is not at risk of getting laid off like so many other working Americans during the period of the Great Recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Bingham is at risk of losing his life of travel on the road due to firing people via telecommunications video instead. To make matters worse, his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) is tasking him with having a new hire out of Yale University, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) shadow his in-person firings for a few months as the company, CTC, makes the transition to virtual consulting instead of letting those employees go in-person from now on.
That is not the only change that threatens to upend Ryan’s life choice as he has met a charming, attractive woman who has the same lifestyle as him and appears to see life as he does with less commitments and more choice. Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga) is the constantly traveling business woman for whom Ryan may have finally met his match. While they started out as a casual fling, Ryan begins to develop feelings for her as he ponders his uncertain future of life on the road as well as the fact that once he achieves his life goal of ten million airline miles accumulated may not have much to strive for.
Ryan and Natalie may not show it at first but the firings and the emotional weight of being responsible for upending people’s lives cause them stress, anxiety, and a desire to break free of their own pains in doing the job they have chosen. While Ryan is content with travel on the road, he hears from his estranged sister, Kara, that his other, younger sister, Julie is getting married. Ryan left home when he first could leave and never looked back, and his family still remembers that. He is the ‘black sheep’ of the family, known to pursue his own gratification while letting his relationships deteriorate over the years.
Having Alex as a love interest has reignited his desire to see his sisters again and to be there for the wedding in northern Wisconsin. Him and Alex are still a bit of a mystery to each other, but they enjoy each other’s company, and he invites her to join him as the +1 guest, not wanting to be the ‘guy alone at the bar’ watching all the couples enjoy a dance together. There are these moments of vulnerability interspersed through ‘Up in The Air’ that remind the audience that all these characters have their own flaws and shortcomings. They are not perfect people, and the film does not judge them outright but allows the audience to decide if they are admirable or detestable or a bit of both. What I love most is that the film director and writers allow us to decide if we agree with Ryan’s choices or if we would have chosen to go the other route in life that he has neglected.
Sometimes, it is never too late to choose a different path than the one that we have set out for ourselves. However, whether we can pull back from previous choices made and to get a fresh start on a new path, is one of the underlying themes of ‘Up in The Air.’ Ryan can try to start a real relationship with Alex, make amends with his sisters and be more present in their lives, and still achieve his 10-million-mile goal but life can get in the way so it’s possible he will not be as successful in salvaging both his relationships, his career goals, and his need for travel. Even if he thinks he can be successful at keeping everybody in his life happy, he may have to make sacrifices as in life, it can be nearly impossible to keep all options available to you.
The priorities we make now while end up defining us far into the future and there may come a time where the sacrifices, we make in one area may lead to a lack of connection or attachment or fulfilment in another area. Throughout the film during Ryan’s motivational speeches, he talks about the ‘stuff’ in life weighing us down whether it’s our relationships, our possessions, and even our desires. He makes the point in the audience that ‘life can be better footloose’ and not as tied down to suffer from it. However, what the film makes clear is that when you find real happiness in a relationship, can you pivot to slowing down with that heavier backpack you carry around because you feel fulfilled to do so? Can Ryan make room for a real relationship with Alex or his sisters to give up life on the road so his backpack will be heavier, but he’ll still be happier as a result, and maybe that what’s he was missing all this time around?
While Ryan is a ‘road warrior’ and enjoys not being attached to anyone or anything, who will be there for him if he must stay at his scant one-bedroom apartment in Omaha or if he were to be fired from his job where he fires other people. The film brilliantly shows real people who’ve been through real loss in terms of their jobs and livelihoods, and how while it is almost impossible to get through it, they could not keep going on without their responsibility to their families or the love that their families show for them in those tough times. In life, it always helps to have a good support system or to have good people like family motivating you to get you through the tough times.
Ryan may be prepared for a life unattached now, but he may find as he gets older, that his choice to not have many or any attachments at all may lead to the loneliness and pain that then can come from facing life’s hurdles alone, especially when you don’t truly get to know the person because you are so busy traveling and can’t make time for them at all. As Ryan says to his sister Julie’s husband-to-be, Jim, on their wedding day to help him get over his ‘cold feet’ at getting married, “Life’s better with company.”