Up In The Air
Connecting the Main Character's personal problem with the story's larger problem creates a meaningful and lasting narrative.
A well-crafted story moves beyond the simple trappings of drama and entertainment to provide an audience with something that lasts long after the curtain falls. Unfortunately few and far between, these are the films we cherish most because they have something meaningful to say about the human experience.
It's not easy to watch a film about a guy who fires people. And it's even harder to listen to real life concerns of those who have lost their jobs over the past two years. But if there's one thing stories can do, it is to extract some meaning out of seemingly pointless and painful events.
Well constructed stories like Up In The Air do this with ease.
One of the nicest things about this story is the seamless integration between the problems affecting Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) personally and the problems affecting everyone in the story. In a story structured like this the same kind of problem that affects everyone will also be the same thing that the Main Character is struggling with personally. Why? Because it allows an audience to experience the fallout from a problem both objectively and subjectively. Complete Stories always do this as it leaves an audience with a greater meaning they can't attain in their real life.
In Up In The Air, problems exist because there are efforts being made to reduce the workforces of several different companies, i.e. massive nationwide layoffs. In addition, there is an attempt by Ryan's company, CTC, to use video-conferencing as a means to lower their expenses. Both examples are problems caused by the efforts to reduce a company's reliance on people for profits.
The same thing is going on within Ryan personally as exemplified by his backpack speech.
Now, I'm going to set your backpack on fire. What do you want to take out of it? Photos? Photos are for people who can't remember. Drink some gingko and let the photos burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing.
(a beat of emphasis)
It's kind of exhilarating isn't it? That is how I approach every day.
Though he doesn't see a problem with it until the end, Ryan has applied the same methodology businesses use to cut costs to his own personal life. Like the company he works for, Ryan's point-of-view is that things are better without all that dead weight. And like his company, Ryan suffers for it.
At least, that's what we the audience think because we are offered that objective view of the problems suffered by such thinking. Ryan can't step outside of himself and see how efforts to reduce the connections in your life can lead to problems. In fact, if you were to ask Ryan at the beginning of the story how he felt about things, he'd say "Great!"
Which leads us to another intriguing aspect of this story...
Change Is Not Always Good
My wife, who is not half the StoryFanatic™ I am, had this to say as the end credits began to roll:
That is the only movie I've seen where they setup this guy with an empty life, and then have him reach an enlightenment that ends up making him more miserable. Before the story he was blissfully unaware; he had found a way of life that worked for him. But now that he's aware that there is more to life, his happiness is all but gone. If he had never met Natalie, he would have been fine and would have continued to see Alex from time to time.
I couldn't have said it better!
This is precisely what Up In The Air was trying to communicate. Ryan's transformational change of character, while at first glance the right thing to do, actually brought him to a place of even greater angst. Enlightenment doesn't always have to be a positive thing and there is nothing wrong with a story that takes this approach. In fact, some may say that a story like this is more honest as it more closely resembles what happens in real life.
The bittersweet feeling this film has at the end is due to the fact that it was structured as a Personal Tragedy. Ryan, as the Protagonist in the larger story, is successful in his attempts to show what a bad idea firing people over the Internet is.
I need you back in the air.
Ryan doesn't react.
Did you hear me? I thought you'd be thrilled.
I'm fine. What about video conferencing?
CTC is pausing on the whole new media front for a moment. Giving it a little more thought. Getting our work horses back out doing what they do best.
So the good guys win, but at what cost?
Ryan's journey failed to bring him any lasting comfort. This is best shown in the scene where he stands before the wall of airplane Departures. He now has a wealth of choices before him, all the potential in the world to make a connection, but he has no idea where to start. He has changed, but he hasn't been resolved.
The authors of this story were trying to say something meaningful, and the structure they wrapped it in supports their argument.
Shining a Light
One final thought concerning the heart of this story. Many would automatically assume that the relationship between Alex (Vera Farmiga) and Ryan represent the emotional core. After all, they do spend a lot of time in bed and Ryan eventually falls in love with her.
The problem with this is that Alex shares the same worldview that Ryan has. Exposing a character to someone who thinks just like them will do nothing for their development. It is only through alternative viewpoints on how the world should be that characters are forced to reexamine their prejudices and beliefs.
My wife had it right. If Ryan had never met Natalie (Anna Kendrick), his relationship with Alex would still be going. That is exactly the role an Influence Character is supposed to play on the Main Character of a story. Influence Characters represent the fourth source of conflict that many unthinkingly blend with the Relationship Story. They enter the story and shine a light on whatever justifications the Main Character suffers from.
Natalie's seemingly naive assessments of how life should be are actually powerful catalysts for Ryan's growth. They argue back and forth over it, but eventually she begins to break through his stubborn attitude. It is precisely his relationship with her that forces him to grow to a point where he finally changes and ditches his conference for Alex.
The Best Film of 2009
Academy Awards aside, the best story of 2009 belongs to Up In The Air. Clever thematic connections, a strong Influence Character and a meaningful ending all contributed towards the success of this film. Through this strongly crafted structure, the authors were able to give audiences an experience they can't get in real life--namely, the opportunity to see both inside and outside of themselves.
Up In The Air was trying to say something about the problems we face in our daily lives and how best to go about solving them. And while it may be a painful process at first, at least from a personal standpoint, it might be just the kind of thing we must do in order to move on.
If only more films were as deeply meaningful as this one.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
In trying to nail down the storyform for this story, the first thing that stands out is the Objective Story Issue. When it comes to showing the detrimental effects of cold impersonal technology replacing humans, Expediency is the one Issue that leaps out. While firing by Internet might not be the right thing to do, it certainly is the most Expedient. It seems clear that this was what the story was about--the Expediency of modern business vs. the Need of the recently laid-off to be treated with respect.
When it comes to Ryan's personal issues with his backpack and all, the Doubt quad stands out. Evaluation, Re-evaluation, Production and Reduction seemed to speak of his character more than any other. Ryan suffers from a pessimistic attitude (another way to look at Doubt) and his drive to empty out his backpack screams Reduction.
It's comforting then to see that Reduction was also in the Expediency quad. Because Ryan is a Changed Main Character, his Problem will be the same as the Objective Story Problem. Selecting Reduction as the Problem for locked in the storyform, forcing a Solution of Production for both Ryan's Throughline and the Objective Story Throughline. This works nicely in the OS Throughline with Craig wanting his best producers in the air and, of course, with Ryan and his belief that there was something more there with Alex than there really was. Another way to look at Production is to think of it as people who "make a mountain out of a molehill." Certainly, this phrase could accurately describe Ryan at the end of the film.
With these elements set into place, the other throughlines lined up nicely. The Relationship Story is basically a mentoring session (Relationship Story Concern of `Learning) between the hardened veteran and the wide-eyed newbie. And Natalie herself seems most concerned with the situation with her ex-fiance and the fact that she isn't living the 23-year old life she thought she would be (Influence Character Concern of `Present).