Stealth Politics

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Erica Abeel Erica Abeel, author Wild Girls, coming October 2016

The subtext of Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" has me riled. That said, "Up" -- named best film by the NBR, a bellwether for the Oscars -- is hugely entertaining, arguably the one clear hit out of this year's Toronto. But it sneakily presumes an acceptance of corporate America at its nastiest that we don't all share.

Of course movies have long been purveyors of political views. Think of filmmakers from Sergei Eisenstein, to Oliver Stone, to Ken Loach, who foreground their politics to potent effect.

But there's a second, subtler brand of politics in films that peddle their presumptions so subtly you barely notice. The film's world view is its deeper message, the medium in which it exists.

Oren Moverman's brilliantly acted "The Messenger" offers a version of stealth politics that hits me just right. While there's no anti-war grandstanding, it slips in points about precisely who the American military puts in harm's way.

"Messenger" follows two soldiers tasked with informing next of kin about the death of a soldier. Though not central to the film's story arc, it's clear throughout that the young men being fed into the meat grinder in the Middle East are not prepping at Andover or applying to Yale. In fact, the army is currently filling its quota because at a time of double digit unemployment it offers a paycheck to the economically disadvantaged. While "Messenger" is the drama of a soldier who reclaims his soul (the mesmerizing Ben Foster, our next Sean Penn), it also fingers a society that asks only its poorest citizens to make the ultimate sacrifice.

In "Up in the Air" Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a corporate downsizer who fires people for a living. One tidy package, the movie delivers wickedly funny repartee, recognizable characters, and a topicality that feels ripped from the morning headlines.

But to cast George Clooney as its hero/anti hero is to load the dice. Clooney's Ryan Bingham is one of "America's executioners," as Michael Moore would have it, a cog in a corporate juggernaut that crushes countless Americans. Yet how can you dislike this ax-man when the actor playing him is a one-man charm offensive, perhaps the most likeable actor in Hollywood? Clooney could play Ted Bundy for godssake and you might give serial killers a pass.

The film presumes that someone's gotta do this odious job, it takes all kinds, right? But it never pulls back to question the larger issue: what sort of society enables a business culture that destroys lives? As Reitman said to me in a recent interview, "Yes it's heartbreaking that this many people are losing their jobs, but that doesn't make it wrong."

It also smells bad that the film includes wince-worthy interviews with real people who got axed. Put it down to filmic verisimilitude. Yet isn't it kind of having it both ways? Reitman captures a country convulsed by the economic downturn. At the same time his film unspools in a morally suspect realm, betraying an acceptance of the cruelties it depicts that's both shallow and disturbing.