“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” – Augustine, Confessions, 1.1
The 2009 film, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney, is a sleek modern tragedy following the life of Ryan Bingham. Ryan, played by Clooney, lives in a constant state of restless motion. While he longs for it, the movie’s viewers never see him arrive at a state of rest.
I’m a fan of George Clooney. That guy knows how to wear a suit. I’m also a fan of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit. That lady knows how to write. So, when the magical prose of Williams made a quick five-second cameo in Clooney’s film, I took notice. While most viewers undoubtedly miss the connection, I am convinced the humble children’s book unlocks the key, not only to the entire film, but also to an important truth about life.
Ryan Bingham’s job consists of flying around the United States firing people on behalf of corporations, which are on the decline. Bingham travels often. Bingham travels light. “To know me,” he explains, “is to fly with me.”
Bingham lives by a streamlined philosophy and holds to it fiercely—constant and uninhibited mobility. Always traveling and never at home, Bingham considers airports and hotels his true “home.” This, of course, makes sense. Airports and hotels are constructed spaces where a sense of permanence, place, and relationship is almost completely absent. Everything is designed for speed, impersonality, and impermanence.
As the film proceeds we discover that constant and uninterrupted mobility is not only enjoyable for Mr. Bingham, it is the most important thing in his life. For, according to Bingham, “the slower we move, the faster we die.” Surplus belongings and complicated relationships only slow Bingham down—no excess baggage allowed. If you cannot easily fit in his overhead bin, you are discarded.
Ryan Bingham has little to no relationship with his family. He fires people every day and never sees them again. His liaisons with women last as long as his single serving liquor bottles. His most meaningful daily encounters are with his flight attendant and his hotel concierge. He appreciates that they thank him and even reward him for his “loyalty.”
Bingham moonlights as a motivational speaker in hotel ballrooms. In his stump speech he asks participants to put all of their belongings and relationships into an imaginary backpack. He then asks his audience to feel the weight of these things and these relationships on their shoulders. He asks them, “How much does your life weigh?” Travel light, Bingham warns. Relationships, connections, and commitment, these are the things that weigh you down and wear you out. “Why don’t you set that bag down?” he challenges. He continues on…
“Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises… Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”
The New York Times labeled Up in the Air “a laugh-infused stealth tragedy.” This seems an apt description. Witnessing the deep and gnawing emptiness of Ryan Bingham’s life and work, I was often unsure whether or not I was supposed to laugh or cry. Both reactions felt appropriate. Bingham’s ultimate commitment to personal mobility, efficiency, and uninhibited freedom systematically destroyed his potential for real relationship with any one, any thing, or any place.
As the film goes on, viewers follow Bingham as relationships steadily threaten his treasured life of mobility and freedom. His family will not stop hounding him about his sister’s upcoming wedding. He is beginning to desire a lasting relationship with a woman (gasp). He is thrust into a mentoring relationship with a coworker who he abhors. As these relationships come to the forefront, he begins to reflect on the lives of the people he is firing on a daily basis.
This reflection coincides with his boss thinking about ending his travel schedule and ground his work in Omaha. People, place, and permanence are threatening to unravel Ryan Bingham’s life in the skies.
As the film draws to a close the viewer begins to hope that these pressure points will finally come together to force Bingham to realize the error of his ways. The viewer sits in hope that he will ultimately learn to commit and connect.
We find Bingham finally cornered by everything that is antithetical to his philosophy. Returning to his hometown in rural Wisconsin, Bingham is forced to stay in an old hotel – where he holds no membership cards or claims to loyalty programs. He must attend a wedding and is encircled by a family that is blue-collared, provincial, loving, slow, inefficient, and poorly dressed.
Confronted on all sides, Bingham is asked by a minor character what appears to be a throw away question. Holding a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit the character asks, “Have you ever read this?” Bingham blows off the question with a sarcastic comment about “powerful stuff” and moves on. Neither the director nor Bingham linger on the book for more than a couple of seconds, but make no mistake, the moment is critical.
The Velveteen Rabbit, as most of us know, follows the life of a toy rabbit in the process of “becoming real.” How does one become “real?” What is the process like? Margery William’s dialogue between two toys captures the answer.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“Free” to Love
I kept my heart from [believing]; frightened of falling headfirst, I was hanging myself instead.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.6
Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain but was afraid to be free of it.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.21
At the end of the film Ryan Bingham is presented with a choice. Will he allow love to make him “real” despite the inconvenience, messiness, wear, and tear? Or, will he redouble his efforts to fortify his jet-setting lifestyle of mobility, efficiency, and disconnected freedom? Being a tragedy Ryan’s restless soul finally chooses the later.
Even so, “choice” does not feel like the right word. While Bingham appears to be a man of limitless freedom, he ultimately appears to be its prisoner. Bingham longs to be loved, most especially by the woman he is currently sleeping with. She, however, assures him in a moment of wrenching honesty that she already has a “real” life and he is not a part of it. He is merely a sexual “escape,” a “parenthesis.”
“When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
The film ends with the empty sound of the cold wind rushing over the wings of Bingham’s plane.
What tortuous paths!
How fearful a fate for ‘the rash soul’…
Turned this way and that. On its back, on its side, on its stomach, all positions are uncomfortable.
You alone are repose.
Augustine, The Confessions, 6.26