Up in the air, scared, frighteningly alone souls vainly searching for meaning in life

Fittingly or not, on Christmas Day, those who love George Clooney and pay attention to movies bound for the Academy Awards will either find the need to examine their lives more deeply or dig deeper into denial of the life they are living if they go see Jason Reitman’s third movie, Up In The Air.

I encourage you to go see Clooney play Ryan Bingham an airport warrior, Termination Facilitator, job transition specialist who fires people for a living and whose major life goal is to reach 10 million miles in the air. When corporations need to downsize quickly, he flies in and breaks the news to the new former employees. His job is the most secure when business is the most insecure.

Scriptwriter and director Reitman made the risky choice, while shooting in Detroit and St. Louis, of using real, fired people to play themselves giving them a shot at saying and doing what they wished they had done if they weren’t in such total shock when they went through this clinical, dehumanizing firing process. The movie is based on the book with the same title written by Walter Kirn in 2001. At that time Kirn told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, “I … wanted to create a character who’s comfortable with all the things that the intelligentsia in America is not comfortable with, the vast and oppressive consumer culture.” Reitman appears to have gone well beyond the book’s more simple message with subtle, penetrating characters and an underlying message America most needs.

During the six years it took Reitman to make his gem, he made his own significant life transition getting married, having a child and maturing as a person. When one of his characters says, “life is better with company,” we can sense it comes from the heart. “This is the most personal film I’ve ever made,” Reitman has said, and what that means is that Up in the Air has been constructed with an underlying warmth and concern about character and an accompanying understanding of what’s of value in life, of what it means to be human in all senses of the word.

Terry Gross interviewed Reitman this month which gives insights into Reitman, Clooney and making movies.

Of all the movie reviews I’ve read two stand out for me. Frank Rich best penetrates the importance of this movie and our economic crisis which will envelope our lives for some time to come. George Will shows atypical sensitivity and normal insensitivity in the same review.

FRANK RICH: What gives our Great Recession its particular darkness — and gives this film its haunting afterlife — is the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us. In the shorthand of the day, it’s the dichotomy between Wall Street and Main Street, though that oversimplifies the divide. This disconnect isn’t just about the huge gap in income between the financial sector and the rest of America. Nor is it just about the inequities of a government bailout that rescued the irresponsible bankers who helped crash the economy while shortchanging the innocent victims of their reckless gambles. What “Up in the Air” captures is less didactic. It makes palpable the cultural and even physical chasm that opened up between the two Americas for years before the financial collapse.

The private-equity deal makers who bought and sold once-solid companies like trading cards, saddling them with debt, never saw the workers whose jobs were shredded by their cunning games of financial looting. The geniuses in Washington and on Wall Street who invented junk mortgages and then bundled and sold them as securities didn’t live in the same neighborhoods as the mortgagees, small investors and retirees left holding the bag once the housing bubble burst.

Those at the top are separated from the consequences of their actions. They are exemplified by Robert Rubin, formerly of Citigroup and a mentor to both Obama’s Treasury secretary and chief economic adviser. He looked the other way when his bank made ruinous high-risk bets, and then cashed out and split, leaving taxpayers to pay for the wreckage while he escaped any accountability. Such economic wise men peer down at the country from a hermetically sealed bubble of privilege and self-interest, much as Ryan does from the plane flying him to his next mass firing. And they tend to think, as Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs notoriously put it, that they are doing “God’s work” to sustain our free-market system.

Last week Goldman Sachs announced it would grant some of this year’s bonuses in stock, not cash, to try to stanch the public backlash to the record profits it piled up thanks to government largess. But Washington remains strangely oblivious to the mood out there. Financial reform has been embattled on Capitol Hill, where the financial industry has spent $344 million on lobbying in the first three quarters of 2009. The big ratings agencies that gave triple-A stamps of approval to Wall Street’s junk are back to business as usual. Bank of America and Citi are racing to return TARP money to Washington not because they have necessarily recovered but because they want to shower rewards on their executives with impunity.

The rage engendered by this status quo is across the political map. As unlikely as it sounds, Ron Paul and Jim DeMint, political heroes of the tea party right, and Bernie Sanders and Alan Grayson, similarly revered on the left, have found a common cause in vilifying the Federal Reserve Bank and its chairman, Ben Bernanke. The Fed is hardly the root of all evil, but you can see why it is a handy scapegoat. Like the institutions it failed to police during the boom, it wields its power from on high with little transparency to those below.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/13/opinion/13rich.html?ref=opinion Frank Rich

GEORGE WILL: The movie begins and ends with everyday people talking to the camera, making remarkably sensitive statements about the trauma of being declared dispensable. Some, however, recall that the consequences included being reminded that things they retained, such as their human connections, are truly indispensable.

America has an aging population and has chosen to have a welfare state that siphons increasing amounts of wealth from the economy to give to the elderly. Having willed this end, America must will the means to it — sometimes severe economic efficiency to generate revenue to finance the entitlement culture. So “Up in the Air” is sobering entertainment for a nation contemplating a giant addition to the entitlement menu. In addition to being perhaps the best American movie of 2009, “Up in the Air” is two mature themes subtly braided and nuanced for grown-ups. One is the sometimes shattering sense of failure, desperation and worthlessness that overwhelms middle-aged people who lose their livelihoods. The other is that such shocks can be reminders that there is more to life than livelihoods.


In my post last Sunday on Hag’s blog, Corporate Cancer: An insidious disease that is consuming America and the world, I wrote about a common enemy that both left and right, middle and poor America could rally around. Those on the left chose that end of the spectrum because they recognize that those on the right are scared, frighteningly alone souls vainly searching for meaning in life. This brilliant movie shows why that choice is so wise and important to America’s soul which seems to be lost in the corporate cloud that surrounds all our lives.

We can eventually find the sun and our version of a meaningful life only if we find a way to bridge our ideological gap and attack a common enemy, Corporate Communism. Corporate Communist leaders are their own worst enemies and the most lost and sad despite their trumpeting of the “good life.” They need our help the most and are unlikely to ever realize it.

Hopefully, future historians will look at them as Flat Earthers whose stupidity knew no bounds and who nearly wiped out humanity. If not, there will be no future historians to write such a history.


  1. cocktailhag says:

    Sounds like a great movie; I’d like to see it. I think that awareness of these two Americas is part of what drives so many people to want to be on reality TV. They see that life only seems secure for the rich and famous, and they desperately want a piece of that, and will do almost anything to get there. The cruel irony is that their chances are probably less than those of the ghetto kid who dreams of becoming a rapper. As real life becomes bleaker for everyone, the fantasy life on TV offers the only escape.

  2. rmp says:

    People in both Americas who have felt the sting or worse from the economic crisis, are finding that things are not as important as they were led to believe by the Corporate Communist propaganda/sales machinery. To many viewers, reality TV is an escape. To others, like myself, it is a window into the world as it exists and unless you watch as many as I do, you would probably be surprised how often real values triumph over material wealth and selfishness.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I admit I have never watched a reality show; I was extrapolating on the desperate behavior of the balloon boy parents and the WH party crashers. Insecurity, and not just financial, seems to drive this.

      • rmp says:

        Here is an example of a reality show that has some great messages for America:

        Travel Channel: Meet the Natives U.S.A. Series “Insightful, entertaining and unforgettable, the extraordinary journey of 5 men from the remote Pacific island of Tanna across the USA will force us to look at ourselves through brand-new eyes.”

        I just discovered this series that started in November and ended tonight. The Five natives traveled to America visiting Orange County, Montana, Illinois, NY and Washington D.C. to bring a message of peace. After their top chief heard about the Twin Towers and our current wars, he sent these ambassadors to see if they could help stop the fighting because during WWII an American named Tom Navy helped stop tribal warfare in Tanna. The tribal ambassadors ask insightful questions such as: Why are we so obsessed with money and possessions? Why do we treat our pets better than some of our fellow citizens? What does “family” mean to us? What do we do with our elderly? How come we make all our important decisions in bars? And what’s the point of ironing a shirt?

  3. skeptic says:

    I heard the Terry Gross interview, too. It was pretty interesting, but we seldom go out to the movies. However, if it shows up on NetFlix, I’ll probably see it there.

  4. nailhead tom says:

    “Those on the left chose that end of the spectrum because they recognize that those on the right are scared, frighteningly alone souls vainly searching for meaning in life.”

    And aren’t they also clutching their bibles and guns? That statement is 24 carat crap. How could anyone take anything else you come up with seriously after that?

      • dirigo says:

        Here’s another one, Dickhead, about your heroes fucking around with defense appropriations in order to stall the health care bill.

        What’s that line about “Have you no shame at long last, sir”?

        Wake up …


        • dirigo says:

          Let me be clear, Dickhead.

          I am, as RMP is, a veteran; and these people appear to be as cynical and politically demented as you.

          It’s disgusting and a disgrace. Flat out.

          The problem, as Sen. Whitehouse suggests, now is you people may soon have no rebuttals whatsoever.

          That day can’t come quickly enough.

          • nailhead tom says:

            And this constant “veteran” reference. Maybe you guys that held down the motor pool and boiled the spuds and chased the paperwork through supply should get three votes instead of just one. Seems only fair, since you’re better and more important than everyone else. There’s also the fact that any delay in the defense appropriations bill will mean that the mess hall at Elmendorf AFB as well as those in Iraq will be locked up tight when everyone shows up for chow in the morning and there won’t be any rounds for the AR-15 at the armory, either. You’re a bigger sap than you let on.

        • nailhead tom says:

          So what’s you’re problem? Those measures have been used by the Democrats time and time again. But it’s OK when they do it. They are a majority. They don’t need the Republicans to get anything passed. If the country is so overwhelmingly in favor of nationalized health care and the Dems are in the majority, then why is there even an issue? As you well know, not even all the Dems agree that nationalization of the medical industry is something that their constituents will support. That’s why, in a country where the law is supposed to apply equally to everyone, the Senate cut a special deal with Sen. Nelson favoring Nebraska in exchange for his 60th vote. Don’t give me any crap about Republican obstructionism when Harry Reid is willing to flush the Constitution down the commode in order to advance what will turn out to be his last piece of legislation. But, what does he care? They’ll make him head of some federal department. He’s too creepy to be an effective lobbyist.

          • dirigo says:

            Sure, it’s all crap, Tom.

            Right. Right.

            Trouble is, the minority you support has worked, since the election, as though there wasn’t a decision to go in a different direction, with a more progressive majority.

            There is no plan from the right, nothing but negation, and certainly no sense of responsibility for the preceding eight years.

            Of course not.

            You and people of like mind simply refuse to acknowledge the election results.

            All the pork and procedural tricks aside, that’s the problem, along with the very peculiar, flag-waving, pompous hypocrisy which only the right can promulgate.

            As for the veteran shit, I just don’t think I’d want to protect someone like you. Thankfully, I don’t. That’s about it.

            Thanks ever so …

          • nailhead tom says:

            “You and people of like mind simply refuse to acknowledge the election results.”

            So what would that entail? How does one “acknowledge the election results? Do I go to my senator and congressman and demand that they vote “aye” on spending bills for every non-profitable venture that some committee lobbies for, for every Keynesian stimulus experiment that generations to come will be forced to pay for and turn the US dollar into asswipe, for a nationalization of medical care that can only ration service at an increased cost? Do I do this because a certain portion of the electorate saw fit to pull the lever for a candidate far more suited to be the anchor on the six o’clock news in Davenport, Iowa than the POTUS? I guess that’s what freedom’s all about for you grommet heads. Shut up and get on the wagon. Funny, when Bush was president you didn’t feel the same way, now did you?

          • dirigo says:

            Oh no, quite to the contrary, I am over the top about Bush. Can’t even put words to it. That’s part of my point in citing service, conveyed within an historical context. You seem too dim to get my deeper meaning.

            I concede that Obama appears to be an empty, establishment suit at this point. But using the hackneyed image of half a loaf, I’d prefer that the health bill be passed, even with the pork larded out to Nebraska, Louisiana, and wherever.

            I still think there’s been nothing but nothing from the right in the last year – from your crowd.

            But about protection, say, and veterans wanting “three votes” and so on (using an analogy to local trash collection and who’s in and who’s out) – if I were an Army company commander, assigned to a sector in a domestic community under threat, and I had a list of residents who said they were content to take care of themselves and refused to pay taxes for what most people would consider a fair rate for minimal public service – including security (all the local cops have been killed by this time); and I noticed, not only that you were on the list, but that you also stated, loudly – while waving your pop gun from your porch – that you were one of those who refused to pay for said minimal services; I would gladly order my men to drive right by, even if, in the moment, foreign-looking types were emerging from black cars in front of your home, armed with automatic weapons, assessing the value of your rose bushes and automobiles, while mumbling something about your religious beliefs.

            I’d be glad to move on, really, and take care of people who’d appreciate what I might offer, as fellow members of a community, as opposed to blinkered people living in an Oz-like city on a hill, with room enough for only the chosen – someone perhaps like you.

            Of course, if, suddenly, in the heat of said moment, with your hair standing on your neck, you wanted to pay your fair share, I could send over one of my spud-peeling sergeants to take a check and write a receipt, and then order my gunners to take out the bad guys.

            But if not, I’d be quite happy to rock on down the road and let you handle it with your own johnson.

            “But it was just my ‘magination,
            Runnin’ away with me;
            It was just my ‘magination,
            Runnin’ away … “

  5. sysprog says:

    George F. Twit criticizing people who feel “entitled”?

    George F. Twit, who is (by George Hiatt’s rules) entitled not only to his own opinions but also his own “facts”?

    George F. Twit criticizing citizen who he doesn’t consider as bona fide members of the national “economy” and who he says are “siphoning” off the wealth of the good true Americans?

    George F. Twit, the guy who feels entitled never to see any unlovely people?


    This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don’t wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.

    Edmund Burke — what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted “the decent drapery of life”; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim — said: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

    Is there anything more repulsive than a royal twit who is unashamedly nostalgic for the good old days of Marie Antoinette complaining about peasants who feel “entitled”?

  6. retzilian says:

    This morning on the way to the marketplace where I have a space for helping people review their health insurance (and Medicare benefits), I was listening to the local NPR station on the radio and they were talking about climate change and what took place in Copenhagen and one caller said, “As long as greed outnumbers compassion, we’re screwed.”

    That’s basically it in a nutshell. If you are a compassionate person in this world, you are a hurtin’ cowpoke. If I were a drinker, I would be drunk a LOT. As it is, I’ll have to wait for my children to grow up and leave home, then I’m on an IV of Stoli.

    Nobody can read the news or watch these shows or participate in any meaningful way in the political system and not be broken hearted, disillusioned, furious even.

    I just brace myself and try to remain somewhat detached. Otherwise, I’d just go crazy over this. Having been laid off twice in two “recessions” over the past 2 decades, I know what it’s like. I also know what it’s like to send 300 resumes to jobs and not hear from anyone. I even doctored my resume to make it look like I was a late-20s male with an MBA and still squat.

    It’s a cold cruel world out there, Tom. Don’t provoke us. I’m just not in the mood for your crap. If it’s a joke, it’s boring. If it’s sincere, you are a sad, sick man.

  7. retzilian says:

    Read the Will piece. The comment section does a good enough job of excoriating him.