In yesterday's New York Times, Frank Rich says the George Clooney flick Up in the Air will, "salve national wounds that continue to fester in the real world." Did he see the same movie we did? Because he's totally wrong.
For those of you who rushed out to see the movie during its big city engagement before it opens wide on Christmas day will know, Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a man who travels around the country firing people who have been downsized by their respective companies. Rich thinks this is the greatest thing since sliced bread, if we could all still afford a loaf of bread or a knife to cut it with.
Here is an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can't see or know. Up in the Air may be a glossy production sprinkled with laughter and sex, but it captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession as vividly as a far more dour Hollywood product of 70 years ago, The Grapes of Wrath, did the vastly different landscape of the Great Depression.
Steinbeck did actually tell the story of Up in the Air in The Grapes of Wrath. Early in the novel, he gives a few pages to the bank men who came to kick farmers off their land:
Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank or the Companyneedswantsinsistsmust have as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained. You know the land is poor. You've scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.
And then Steinbeck moved on to the true characters, the Joads and their trek west, full of empty dreams and shattered promises. The only way this movie — that tries to humanize the corporate hatchet man — could be anything like The Grapes of Wrath is if John Steinback came back from the dead and rewrote it so that it focused on and humanized the men who show up at the Joad's house to tack a foreclosure notice on the front door. But he didn't because his tale is about the people whose livelihood was lost due to natural and financial disaster and who subsequently wander around doing anything just to survive. Through it we can sympathize with the once-proud people who have been laid low by the Great Depression.
Up in the Air, on the other hand, is a film about the man who flies around in first class collecting frequent flier miles for sport and still has a job, an expense account, an apartment, and so many hotel key cards that he doesn't even need to pony up for a night at the Milwaukee Hilton unless he wants to. After a peek into his luxe lifestyle, it asks us to feel sorry for him, because his job firing people is so hard and he doesn't have a life outside of work. He's lonely. Sad face.
While director Jason Reitman uses "real people" who lost their jobs as the sorry spectres loosed from this employment coil by Ryan, how do you think watching this movie must feel for someone who has met the Brooks Brothers-clad grim reaper in a beige conference room in their very own workplace? They're intended to muster up even the slightest bit of sympathy for this dude, who still gets a paycheck, because he doesn't have a life? Yeah, that's not salve we're putting on that wound, Frank, it's salt.