Oscar at Work

No one was surprised to see Avatar and Up in the Air nominated for Oscars.    What is surprising, perhaps, is that these two films offer unusually direct commentaries on the current political economy.

Avatar, at first glance, is a classic tale of colonial invasion.  A white hero, a Marine named Jake Sully (one-time bricklayer, the Australian actor Sam Worthington) who lost the use of his legs in combat, agrees to be part of a “Blackwater” type military operation on the planet Pandora.  Pandora, a place of fantastical, tropical beauty, is peopled by a race of gorgeous ten foot blue human-like aliens with long braids, called the Na’vi.  A rapacious military operation is destroying their planet in pursuit of a priceless rock called “unobtainium.”

Sully joins the science mission on Pandora, which allows him to inhabit an avatar body and live among the Na’vi people.  A beautiful young princess, Neytiri (African American actress, Zoey Saldana), teaches Sully to hunt, speak, and ride giant dragons.  They fall in love, and the film climaxes in an epic battle between the literally tree-hugging Navi people and the metal-bound, corporate thugs who want to destroy them for profit.

Is Avatar a bizarro mashup of all things politically correct? Avatar has riled up conservatives across the globe.  The  Chinese government recently halted the showing of the 2D version of Avatar, where popular Chinese bloggers pointed out the connection between the displacement of the Na’vi by humans and the displacement of the Chinese people by the Chinese government and real estate developers.

The Weekly Standard attacked the film for “its mindless worship of a nature-loving tribe ….its hatred of the military….and the notion that to be human is just way uncool.”  The Vatican slammed the film for promoting the worship of nature (as opposed to God).

But beneath the colonial exploitation and the eco-worship, however, lies Cameron’s critique of the American government’s failure to provide adequate healthcare for veterans.  Jake Sully, who is paralyzed from the waist down after a military tour of duty in Venezuela, joins the Pandora mission in large part because he wants a new pair of legs.  Back on earth doctors have the technology to make him walk again, but Sully can’t afford the procedure.  Sully’s mission commander promises him that if he betrays the Na’vi people and helps the mission get the unobtainium that he finally get his legs.

At the end of the day Avatar is not particularly radical, but it is surprisingly political for a blockbuster of such magnitude. Cameron makes a broad  plea for economic as well as ecological justice.  In addition, with the crudely drawn but still sympathetic Jake Sully, Cameron hints that our recent wars in the Middle East are class wars, in which working-class soldiers trade their limbs, and, sometimes, their lives, for financial security.  It hardly seems fair—not in 2026, and not now.

Up in the Air is Jason Reitman’s recessionary romantic comedy about a people who spend a lot of time breathing in the recycled air on jumbo jets. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is more at home in first class at 30,000 feet than he is in his barren apartment in Oklahoma.  Bingham works for a company that fires people for a living.  He spends a good portion of the film sitting across from nicely dressed, white-collar workers, telling them to see their layoff as a chance to finally pursue their dreams.  It’s a hollow message, but Bingham insists that if people have to be fired, he might as well do it with dignity.

Bingham also flirts with dignity, as he pursues Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman who similarly spends her life on the road.  Bingham also develops a mentor relationship with a young co-worker, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick).  A know-it-all fresh out of Cornell’s business school, Keener wants to turn Bingham’s job into a virtual one.  She thinks that people can be fired just as easily with a video conferencing system.  Bingham sees his air born freedom under attack, and he takes her up in the air to show her the importance of firing people face to face.

And here’s where the movie made me cry—for real.  When Bingham and Keener sit across the table from about-to-be-laid-off workers, the human suffering of the recessionary economy comes to the surface.  Reitman used real-life laid-off workers to play these roles; he put classified ads in newspapers in St. Louis and Detroit and invited recently laid off workers to participate in a documentary.  He asked them to “re-enact” their firings, and he selected some of them to act in the film.  Their reward?  About $800 (the daily minimum for an actor set by the Screen Actors Guild) and the privilege of getting fired by George Clooney.

Cozy Bailey, a laid-off Styrofoam technician from Missouri, said that it “sucks to get fired, it doesn’t matter by who.”  But she also confessed that the whole experience was “cathartic.”  Another laid-off worker in the film, Kevin Pilla, was pleased that he was able to say the sorts of things on camera that he hadn’t thought to say in the moment because he was in “such shock.”

For Reitman, talking to these workers was an education. “The astonishing thing is,” Reitman said, “if you had asked me before I made this film, ‘What’s the hardest part about being fired?’ I would have probably said the loss of income…. But what I came to realize, at least when it came to the people, and I talked to a lot of people, it was the loss of purpose. The reason to get out of bed in the morning. The thing they would say that scared me the most was ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know where I’m supposed to go.’”
Reitman has come under fire for what some see as cynical choice to use real laid-off workers.  Dana Stevens at Slate magazine complains that “there’s something instrumentalizing about the way these interviews are shoehorned in for dramatic effect, especially when Reitman seamlessly cuts from the faces of out-of-work Americans to the familiar comic mugs of J.K. Simmons or Zach Galifianakis, playing out-of-work fictional characters.” Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth makes a similar charge, arguing that these “sequences never accrue a sense of purpose beyond mere lip service to social trends.”

Reitman can fairly be accused of mixing high and low, reality with slick unreality, and economic heartbreak with romantic fairy tale.  But the film ultimately sides with the laid-off workers and not with the company that has made a business out of routinizing termination. Up in the Air is about the value of human connection and the ways in which our closest relationships give us purpose.  The simple truth that the workplace can become a legitimate source for those relationships is not lost on the people losing their jobs, or on the audience.

We’ve been hearing a lot of numbers talk about the recession, but relatively little narrative.  The nightly news might focus on an individual family here or there or show some footage of foreclosed homes with yellow tape around them, but where do we go for the real stories?  We certainly wouldn’t expect to find some of the most moving and persuasive tales about the recession in Hollywood, but anyone who can afford to plunk down $10.00 to see Avatar or Up in the Air might, indeed, get more of an economic education that they were bargaining for.  Neither of these movies will encourage anyone to organize a rally or go on strike, but if it is becoming a “social trend” in Hollywood to put a human face on this devastating economy, I’m all for it.  And it seems that Oscar is, too.

Kathy M. Newman

Kathy M. Newman is professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University.  She was involved in the effort to unionize Teaching Assistants at Yale University in the 1990s and she is currently finishing a book, Blacklisted and Bluecollared: How Americans Saw Class in the 1950s.

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13 Responses to Oscar at Work

  1. Lindsay says:

    It makes sense to me that filmmakers are drawing inspiration from the issues that are on all of our minds right now.

    Humanizing the recession helps not only us in terms of how we deal with it emotionally, but also future generations who look back on this time and try to understand what it was like for the people who lived it.

    Great analysis, Kathy!

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  2. Molly Bain says:

    Thanks for this insightful, concise little piece of film criticism on ‘social trends.’ Your reading of Up in the Air made me reflect even more on why I liked it so much. I think those interviews (and their blurring btwn fiction and nonfiction) were at the heart of the film: the interviews foreshadow our main character’s eventual despair and that profound loss of purpose you note Reitman absorbs from the real workers. The movie uses the guise of romantic comedy to get us to reflect on our social moment and the role of work and relationship within it.

    I also think you’re right about James Cameron’s dig at the class component of warfare. He smartly (and quite cynically, a little caustically and maybe too easily) lays this relationship bare with his set up: the operation, because of its industrial strength, looks like the military; but, the soldiers have to be hired because they fight for a corporation.

    It might be too easy of a question, but it is pretty radical and Cameron asks it: When does national defense look like corporate sponsorship?

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  3. Denise Narcisse says:

    Kathy, I believe you’re right on point when you state that films like Up in the Air attach a human face to unemployment statistics. It will be these human faces that will move people to demand the creation of more jobs within their communities. Thank you for your insightful analysis of the films (and for your social activism in general).

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  4. Joshua says:

    Aaron, I may not agree that Bingham’s personal philosophy was vindicated. He is an abject character at the end of the movie, not an inspiring one. Living on the road, alone is not glamorous or appealing to the audience at the end of the movie. The most sympathetic thing he’s done is help Natalie find a new job in a city she wants to be in–which is about his human relationships.

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  7. Kathy Newman says:

    To Josh Ellis: Thanks for catching that. Nebraska. That’s even more remote and despairing, somehow, that Oklahoma. So that makes sense!

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  8. Aaron says:

    “Up in the Air is about the value of human connection and the ways in which our closest relationships give us purpose.” That is absolutely false. Bingham has so fully disconneced himself from any personal relaionship that he has turned his detachment into a philosophy–the empty back pack. As soon as he finally places something in his pack–Alex–he gets burned. By the end of the movie, his philosophy has been vindicated. He was right, life is easier without the complications, his protoge thinks so too, because found a new job as well.

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  10. One minor correction, Clooney’s character lives in Nebraska not Oklahoma.

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  11. Stack says:

    This is a fascinating take on two “best-seller” flicks.
    Rather than blathering on and on about the stars of these movies and their personal lives, this piece offers real insight into the stories told in the films.
    Thank you

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  12. I think the workers in “Up in the Air” “won” in the sense that the bosses recognized their humanity (they are not interchangeable cogs to be let go anonymously).

    I haven’t seen “Avatar” yet, but now that I’ve read your insightful commentary, I’m excited to see it.

    Can’t wait to read your book!

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  13. Joshua says:

    Clooney’s character in “Up in the Air” is left alone and rejected at the end of the movie…but I don’t know if the workers in the movie are ultimately sided with at the end of the movie. I guess they are given a voice with the sequences of them speaking about their firings, but mostly it just made me not want to lose my job…

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