Is it possible in a world where hundreds of jets soar over the oceans that we can feel isolated?
To feel alone when the whole world lies at our fingertips on the internet? To feel estranged when a Skype chat can bear not only a friend’s voice but their image instantaneously to one’s notebook computer? To feel the sting of betrayal when loyalty is one’s primary locus?
These questions permeate the excellent Up in the Air. Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), the film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, a consummate frequent flier who travels the country as a contractor charged with firing other companies’ employees, a profession rife with significance in the midst of “the Great Recession.”
A paradoxical divide is the recurring theme of Up in the Air. One of the early scenes in the film features a precocious Cornell graduate introducing the notion of “glocal” to a room of experienced road warriors. She argues that this combination of “global” and “local” into a neologism represents a paradigmatic shift for business. What is local is now global and vice versa. As the film progresses, however, we learn that the merging of the global and the local is not so idyllic.
The ironies of a “glocal” world are best embodied in Clooney’s character. Bingham experiences life widely but shallowly. In a motivational speech, Bingham argues that “moving is living,” that when we slow down or allow relationships to weigh us down, we draw nearer to our deaths. Constantly on the road, he is always surrounded by other people but never connecting to them. He is always treated as a loyal customer but only because he is on a single-minded journey to be only the seventh individual to travel 10 million miles on his airline of choice. Though in the upper echelon of frequent fliers, he is isolated and disconnected. He is never alone, yet never in community. Above all else, he values loyalty, but has difficulty practicing or receiving it in the context of human relationship. I would imagine that there are parishioners sitting in a crowded pew who could easily relate.
Apropos to our current economic malaise, the movie ends with a tinge of ambiguity: a hope that acknowledges the complexities of contemporary life. Economic measures today tell a schizophrenic tale. While the Dow rockets to recent highs, unemployment continues to be–in an instance of particularly deficient euphemism–a “lagging indicator.” Similarly, Bingham comes to understand the depth of his isolation, but whether he can find fulfillment beyond “elite status” remains to be seen.