On screen in Aspen: Jason Reitman’s ‘Up in the Air’
Ryan Summerlin December 24, 2009
ASPEN – “Up in the Air,” the new film by Jason Reitman, is piling up the honors: best film from the National Board of Review; six Golden Globe nominations, including for best film, best director and best screenplay. Part of the credit goes to the acting: George Clooney, even more appealing than usual, took the best acting award from both the National Board of Review (sharing it with Morgan Freeman, for his work as Nelson Mandela in “Invictus”), and from the New York Critics Circle. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, both featured in “Up in the Air,” will battle it out for the best supporting actress title at the Golden Globes.
Probably an even bigger factor in the acclaim being heaped on the film is its timeliness. Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is a contemporary spin on the traveling salesman – but instead of going door to door, Bingham flies first-class from one corporate headquarters to another. And if he can be said to sell anything, it is a hollow sense of hope. Clooney is a corporate downsizer – a paid executioner, cutting people off from their jobs – and his goal is to get the newly fired out of their offices and out the door with a minimum of fuss. To do so, he slickly assures them that doors are just waiting to be opened if they can forget about their present misery and look ahead.
It’s a load of bull, as Bingham knows. The world of “Up in the Air” reflects the one down on the ground, in off-screen reality: The auto industry is vanishing, corporations everywhere are tightening their belts, and the glut of laid-off workers – visually represented in the film by abandoned office buildings, and rooms with stacks of chairs – isn’t being soaked up by other industries. Among the few businesses that are thriving is the downsizing trade.
In a country with unemployment above 10 percent, Reitman seems to have nailed the zeitgeist. “Up in the Air” – which was released this week and is currently showing in Aspen – is making the opinion page as well as the entertainment section; New York Times columnist Frank Rich centered a recent opinion piece on the film. Which means, of course, that “Up in the Air” was made in a rush, going from conception to the screen in 15 months, the time in which the U.S. economy went from cruising to tanking. Or that Reitman took a stab at a film about downsizing, and lucked out when the milieu caught up to his project.
The correct answer is both, and neither. The facts are: Reitman did not set out to make a film about job loss. Much of the content about the failing economy was added to the film in the 11th hour. And “Up in the Air” is, in the end, not an issue film about employment statistics, but a story about a man stumbling toward finding his soul.
“Up in the Air” is based – loosely in some ways, very directly in others – on Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name. Kirn’s book was published in July of 2001, when the economy was humming, and people might have expected it to continue doing so, with the pro-business George W. Bush as our new president. Despite the atmosphere of those times, Kirn’s Ryan Bingham was a corporate downsizer.
And Reitman related extremely well – to the fact that Bingham spent the bulk of his time in airports and on airplanes. It was 2002 when Reitman read “Up in the Air,” a time when he was searching for financing for what would become his first feature, “Thank You for Smoking,” and he was spending an inordinate amount of time becoming acquainted with the non-place where the corporate traveler exists.
“I was speaking to a moment in time when we were disconnected with people, disconnected with community,” Reitman said one day this past October in Aspen, where he was present for an advance screening of “Up in the Air” at Aspen Filmfest, and to receive Aspen Film’s New Directions award. “And airports are the perfect metaphor. Airports have a different soil to them. You have this list of destinations; the local paper is USA Today.”
That fascination with airports was first expressed in “Lighting Will Guide You,” a five-minute short shot in all the airports Reitman passed through on his promotional tour for “Thank You for Smoking.” The film received its only public screening in Aspen, when “Thank You for Smoking” was shown at Aspen Shortsfest.
“I was always in love with airports, in love with their look, and was thinking about filming them on a larger scale,” Reitman, 32, said. “It was footage of airports, set to music, and it was a reflection on how beautiful I find airports. And how much walking I did in them.”
But even more on his mind were the issues of connecting and escaping. In 2002, Reitman had been recently married, and his thoughts were of family. But the time spent on the road, and then reading “Up in the Air” – which focuses on how Ryan Bingham uses his peripatetic life to keep the rest of humanity at a distance – had him thinking that escape could be a very attractive option.
“I read a book already knowing what I want to do with it,” Reitman, whose last film, “Juno,” earned a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar, said. “I look for books with pieces that fit my puzzle. I read [“Up in the Air”] and immediately knew the kind of story I wanted to tell.”
That story didn’t have much to do with job losses. (The scenes of non-actors from Detroit speaking about their experiences was a late addition to the film.) It had to do with a character who keeps relationships of all kinds at arm’s length; he is most comfortable with the in-and-out friendships made between aisle-mates on a jet. Ryan is barely in contact with his two sisters; it is a question mark whether he will make it to his sister Julie’s wedding. His sense of dislocation extends to his apartment – which is even more plain-vanilla than the hotel rooms he stays in – and his goals in life. His primary ambition is to collect 10 million frequent traveler miles; why he wants them and what he will do with them is a mystery even to himself.
Reitman’s film takes enormous liberties with Kirn’s novel. Reitman, who co-wrote the script with Sheldon Turner, even introduces a romantic interest: Alex (Vera Farmiga), a corporate worker/traveler who relates perfectly to Ryan’s existence.
“I wanted him on the road with someone,” Reitman said of the addition of Alex. “I wanted to give him a romantic counterpart who blows away all his expectations, someone just like him, with all the same beliefs. And he finds someone who believes in it more than he does.”
Reitman’s version of Ryan’s story actually upends the novel. In the film, Ryan’s philosophy undergoes a major shift, as he realizes that his “empty backpack” analogy results in an empty existence. By film’s end, he is connecting with family and co-workers – even helping others make their connections – and has found it a more meaningful and satisfying way of being. His job may be important, but there are more significant components of a life. It is a message that resonates with people in the movie theater seats.
“Someone told me recently, the book is about a guy losing it; the film is about a guy finding it,” Reitman said. “In the film, it’s about a guy figuring it out, about a guy having an epiphany.”