Between an endless war in the Middle East and a down economy in which employment—as always—remains the lagging indicator of a recovery, Americans are engulfed in bad news. Two new movies—Oren Moverman's The Messenger and Jason Reitman's Up in the Air—have as their protagonists people whose job it is to tell people the worst news they will ever hear. Along the way, both movies have a great deal to say about the perils of American life circa 2010, as well as the verities of being human.
The Messenger has as its hero Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), a young soldier who has more than his share of sorrows. Severely wounded in Iraq, Montgomery still is recovering not only from his physical injuries but his psychic ones—his ongoing post-combat trauma and his guilt over his buddies who didn't survive. His high-school sweetheart (Jena Malone) visits him, goes to bed with him, and then tells him she is marrying someone else. On top of this, Montgomery's commanding officer gives him an unwelcome assignment: for the last few months of his enlistment, he will visit the families of fallen soldiers to express the regrets of a grateful nation.
Montgomery takes orders in this mission from Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a surly martinet. Stone lays down the law to Montgomery: never deviate from the standard script ("The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you…"); never reveal any emotions beyond the strictest military demeanor; and above all never touch or embrace any member of the bereaved families.
These rules prove hard for Montgomery. Dead soldiers' loved ones dissolve in tears or spit in his face every day, while he returns night after night to his lonely apartment to face his own grief. It becomes particularly difficult for Montgomery in the case of Olivia Peterson (Samantha Morton), a young Army widow. Against all the rules, Montgomery finds himself moved to help Olivia, finds himself slowly falling for her.
Stone, meanwhile, is fighting his own demons. A recovering alcoholic and veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, Stone never faced any combat worth the name, and tries to assuage his guilt by playing harder-assed-than-thou and bedding every woman he can.
In some ways The Messenger can be seen as a companion piece to another powerful film from earlier in 2009: Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. The Hurt Locker portrayed the effects of battle and constant fear on front-line soldiers in Iraq; The Messenger extends that portrayal to the next stage, in which both returned soldiers and bereaved families must deal with loss. The scenes in which Montgomery and Stone visit the families are well-nigh unbearable to watch, as they should be. (The great Steve Buscemi, playing the father of a dead soldier, has only a few minutes of screen time, but he makes them unforgettable.) However, it is the emotional turmoil of Montgomery and Stone that forms the center of the film, and that is powerful, thanks largely to the actors who play them. Ben Foster, who was more than memorable as a villain in 3:10 to Yuma and a conflicted bisexual man in Six Feet Under, exceeds even those achievements as Montgomery, a soldier whose multiple problems carry him close to the brink. Toward the end, relating to Stone the firefight that maimed him and killed his friends, Foster's Montgomery is so heartbreakingly real that you want to hug him. Harrelson is extraordinary as Stone, so consumed with rage that he seems ready to combust at any moment. In any case, The Messenger succeeds brilliantly in portraying the horrors of a war brought home. It is as urgent as today's headlines, and as old as Troy.
Above all, The Messenger reminds us that no man is an island. Up in the Air conveys the same basic message, but in a different context. Reitman's tragicomedy presents the world through the eyes of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a man whose sole purpose in life is to travel constantly from city to city, firing people.
Bingham works for an Omaha-based contracting firm that relieves business executives of the unpleasantness of telling longtime employees that their services are no longer required. With masterful sang-froid, he braves the tears and insults of the newly unemployed. (These scenes, not incidentally, are every bit as painful to watch as the death notification scenes in The Messenger.) Bingham is quick with helpful advice on job-seeking and emotional support—most of it contained in his company's information packet—but he really only cares about one thing: reaching American Airlines' coveted ten-million-mile traveler elite status. He spends all his time on airplanes or in airports, seeing life mostly in the abstract patterns visible from 35,000 feet, and he is the Zen master of breezing through airports, avoiding all queues, and achieving elite status from every hotel and car rental chain. From time to time, he varies his routine by delivering a motivational speech, "What's in Your Backpack?", in which he exhorts his middle-management audiences to lighten their loads—both material and emotional—to the greatest degree possible. On the few days he is stuck in his dreary Omaha apartment, he dreams only of getting back on the road.
In other words, Bingham lives a disconnected life, and at the film's beginning is perfectly content to do so. We never find out how or why he got that way, though there are hints that his early home life was troubled. We do, however, see his armor start to crack through a confluence of events.
First, Bingham meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a sexy fellow frequent flyer. (They get acquainted in a hotel bar by showing each other their awe-inspiring collections of credit, membership and frequent traveler cards.)
Second, he is forced to fend off a threat from Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a new, young executive at his company, who insists that firing people via video conference is much cheaper and more efficient than face-to-face encounters. Finally, he must dredge up his last few ounces of family feeling to go home to Wisconsin to attend the marriage of his sister Julie (Melanie Lynskey) to amiable, oafish Jim (Danny McBride).
The fewer details you know about the plot of Up in the Air before you see it, the better. The story is in how the characters—particularly Bingham—react to the curve balls they think life wouldn't dare to throw them. Suffice it to say that Bingham has much in common with the protagonists of Reitman's last two films: Aaron Eckhart's Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking and Ellen Page's eponymous character in Juno. Naylor the tobacco industry lobbyist, Juno the pregnant teenager and Bingham the frequent flyer all share the cocky assurance that they know all the angles in their various niches of the world, and all are blindsided when life and people prove to be more treacherous than they assumed.
For movies such as Reitman's, in which nuances of behavior are crucial, you need first-rate actors. He had them in Thank You for Smoking and Juno, and he has them again in Up in the Air. By now it is no longer news that George Clooney, the most charismatic movie star of his generation, has developed acting skills commensurate with his charisma. The finest scene in Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton was the last, in which Clooney stares out the window of a taxi, overwhelmed by the events that have shattered his world. Because Bingham spends most of his time alone, Up in the Air gives Clooney many solo scenes, and he carries them with the aplomb of a master. This is not to detract, however, from Clooney's deftness in handling dialogue, working with other actors, and (need I say?) exuding sex appeal. Of course it helps that he has superb actors working with him. Clooney and Farmiga smoke up the screen together, even sitting at a table working on their laptops. Kendrick, with whom I was unfamiliar before this movie, rends your heart as an ambitious but vulnerable young woman learning some painful life lessons. (Her first attempt at firing someone via video hookup is the movie's saddest, most riveting scene, out of many sad and riveting scenes.)
Up in the Air is brilliantly acted down to the smallest bit part; indeed, some of the best performances come from the actors portraying the never-ending array of the dismissed, expressing their endless sorrow and bitterness at having been declared expendable.
Few films have captured the sorrows of a particular moment in time better than Up in the Air, or made them seem more universal. So why, at the end, doesn't Up in the Air give us that peculiar lift we get from watching a great movie? It is, of course, artistically appropriate that there should be no sense of closure or completion in the life of Ryan Bingham. He has learned important lessons, but how will he apply them—how can he—in a life that seems fated to go on in the same impersonal way? Without giving anything away, Up in the Air leaves Bingham literally at a crossroads, in a visual image that sums up perfectly the film's thematic and emotional content. Yet though viewers' brains find considerable satisfaction in the ending, viewers' hearts cry out for something more—just as they might do so in aspects of their own lives. It is a supreme irony—and not only in the context of the film—that Up in the Air leaves us feeling unsatisfied.