Instead of writing a standard review of Up In the Air, I thought I would tell you about a little creative “theory” I have.
On the surface, Up in the Air is a film about “connection” and the “baggage” that comes with having friends, family, lovers, partners etc. The film has us evaluate a man named Ryan Bingham who does not want any of this. Instead he sells to us a life philosophy where he carries around an empty backpack. He makes common acquaintances but generally he is alone and introverted, but he exudes an aura of general happiness from this lifestyle.
Yet as I watched Jason Reitman’s best film of his young budding career, I had a much different reaction that most filmgoers. I found myself being drawn into a conversation about having a sense of obligation, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for it, and being held accountable for the actions surrounding it.
To me, Ryan Bingham is not a mortal. I do not mean to say that he is immortal, but rather that does not live the life of a normal human being. While this is apparent simply by watching Bingham, I think most viewers see this as a choice he has made. Instead, I see it as his obligation to his responsibility. What is that responsibility? I see Ryan Bingham as a messenger for God.
While this sounds outlandish and perhaps a bit over the top, consider the evidence. Listen to how Ryan describes his job:
Our job is to make limbo tolerable- to ferry wounded souls across the river over dread an humiliation and self-doubt to the point at which hope’s bright shore is dimly visible. And then to stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim while we row back to the palace of their banishment to present the employer with our bills.
This description clearly has many religious undertones. The themes of limbo, hope, and change are ever apparent in the film. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Ryan uses such a spiritual analogy to describe what he does for a living.
More hints continue to appear as the film progresses. While Ryan is comfortable living a life concerned with duty yet plagued by solitude, he secretly craves to be “human.” Sure, he promotes living a life with an empty backpack, but as his decisions with Alex show us, he truly wants to fill up his backpack. This is shown in how he acts at his sister’s wedding and the connection he forges with Natalie. (She clearly isn’t cut for giving up her humanity for this job and he knows this.) But in the end, it his responsibility to his purpose as a messenger, that prevents him from cutting off his wings.
In my favorite scene of the film, Ryan hits his five millionth sky mile and gets to meet Maynard Finch, the Executive pilot of the air fleet. Finch, has white hair and a white mustache and in a soft voice says to Ryan, “We really appreciate your loyalty.” He gives Ryan a platinum membership card that has the number seven and pair of wings inscribed around the number. When asked where he is from, Ryan says, “I’m from here.”
To me, this moment was obvious: Ryan is meeting God. God tells him how much he appreciates his loyalty and service and Ryan is lost with what to say. When he says he is from “here,” he literally means that he is from the sky. He is not human, yet is not divine either. Instead, he is a being that is devoted to his service of easing man’s pain during times of turmoil.
I’ll leave with the final monologue of the film and how I feel it justifies my position of Ryan being a spiritual messenger.
Tonight, most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they’ll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places, crowning their neighborhood with lights. And one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over, blessing them.
If this passage isn’t a metaphor for something that is larger than ourselves, greater than ordinary human life, than I don’t know what is.