CINEMA: Fly The Friendly Skies


MANOHLA DHARGIS: For most people there’s no joy in sucking down recycled oxygen while hurtling above the clouds. The free drinks and freshly baked cookies in business might be nice. (I wouldn’t know.) For most of us, though, air travel largely invokes the indignities of the stockyard, complete with the crowding and pushing, the endlessly long lines, hovering handlers, carefully timed feedings, a faint communal reek and underlying whiff of peril. The skies rarely seem friendly anymore, but to Ryan Bingham, the corporate assassin played by George Clooney in the laugh-infused stealth tragedy “Up in the Air,” they’re so welcoming, he might as well be home.

And so he is. Like many high-altitude border crossers who sometimes seem alone in keeping the airlines aloft, those business types with the corrugated brows, juggling BlackBerrys and double-shot lattes, Bingham lives in between here and there, home and away. The difference is, he loves interstitial living, finds comfort and more in all the spaces associated with airports and airplanes or in what Walter Kirn, in his novel that inspired the film, calls Airworld. “To know me is to fly with me,” Bingham says in the film, like an airborne Descartes. It’s as if as a child he had heard — and heeded — the call of the female attendants for National Airlines who, in the gilded flying age, used to purr, “Fly Me.” Back when flying meant soaring.

That was then, this is now, and this is here, meaning the crash-and-burn-baby-burn America in which one man’s upintheair_1.jpgeconomic crisis is another’s golden opportunity. This is our moment, enthuses Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman, pitch perfect), the unctuous pragmatist for whom Bingham works if rarely sees in person. Some men hunt heads, others — like Bingham — lop them off. A “career transition” counselor, he crisscrosses the country firing employees whose bosses won’t pull the plug themselves. Racking up scalps and miles might seem like a tough way to make a living. Yet it suits Bingham, a solo act for whom no hotel room is too depressing or crowd too lonely, which makes him ripe for the dramatic picking. MORE

listen.gifFRESH AIR: When Walter Kirn wrote Up In The Air in 2001, he had a vision: “I … wanted to create a character who’s comfortable with all the things that the intelligentsia in America is not comfortable with,” Kirn tells host Terry Gross. “The vast and oppressive consumer culture.” Up In The Air chronicles the trials of Ryan Bingham, a corporate businessman with one goal — to accumulate 1 million miles in his frequent-flyer account. Kirn was inspired to write the story after discovering the commuting culture that he calls the “air world.” “[It’s] that conglomeration of places that are no place, including airports, the hotels that are just off the runways that serve them, the rental-car counter, the whole sort of attempt to satisfy the fliers’ needs without any particular offense or any particular flavor. … In ‘air world’ you can come from Dallas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or New York and know where you are, know what’s on offer, know how to get it and what you’re going to get. … Everything is standardized.” Two of Kirn’s novels, Up In The Air and Thumbsucker, have been adapted for screen. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Magazine. His new book is Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever. This interview was first broadcast on June 1, 2001.

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