A movie that did the work of a sermon

It’s not often that a movie does the work of a sermon for me — the work a sermon may do, that is, of linking text/truth to some situation in my life and touching it with compassion, perhaps, or conviction.In this case it was conviction, and the movie was “Up in the Air.” 

Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) and Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) in Up in the Air

“Up in the Air” is a charming, thoughtful film about Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who is constantly flying around the country doing his job as a employment termination specialist — he fires people — and whose personal goal it is to accumulate ten million frequent flyer miles. His lifestyle doesn’t allow time for settling down, not to mention long-term relationships, but he doesn’t really mind. In fact, Ryan also does gigs as a motivational speaker, helping people become freer, more unfettered, as he is. The metaphor he uses is that of a backpack, too stuffed with material possessions, too full of people. A backpack that needs to be burned, or emptied at least.

As the story unfolds, Bingham’s philosophy is challenged by people who demand his reluctant attention, and by an affair premised on his own ideas which reveals its true emptiness when he finds himself falling in love. 

The day H. and I went to the movie had been a busy one, a day in which I’d felt the backpack of obligations pulling heavily on my shoulders. I’ve gotten better over the years at discerning what to say Yes to, and better at saying No, but it’s not always the planned involvements and thought-through lists of our lives that get us down. It’s the things we haven’t planned that derail us. When I was a young mom, for example, it was the unexpected exigencies of children’s lives that could upset a nicely considered schedule again and again.

Now I’m in that swelling demographic of women who find themselves looking after elderly parents. Not looking after in a live-in situation, perhaps, but very much on call for driving, shopping, cleaning, decision-making, and so on. As anyone in this situation knows, there’s nothing predicatable about the lives of the elderly either. 

Whenever our obligations overwhelm us, the easiest reaction is frustration with the people who adhere to them. It is they, rather than the tasks, who seem to be hurting our shoulders. And the easiest solution, at least Bingham’s in “Up in the Air,” appears to involve taking distance from those people. But, as he discovers, that’s a pretty lonely place to land. And driving home from the movie, it hit me squarely. The people in my backpack aren’t the problem. As I trace the web of my relationships, in fact, I see that they’re the source of so much of my life’s value and joy. 

The challenge of how to balance the competing demands of my life probably won’t go away. When the kids were small, it involved constant negotiation, inner and outer, between the obligations imposed by their existence and my (then tiny and seed-like) sense of a call to write. And the negotiation never seemed to end, at any stage, and is still going on, now, in figuring out how to best to fulfill my vocation and take care of these other responsibilities too. 

“Up in the Air” clarified my thinking, re-oriented my heart. I realized anew what’s non-negotiable. It really was as good as a sermon. So maybe this week I can skip church. (Just kidding, Pastor Dan.)

9 thoughts on “A movie that did the work of a sermon

  1. Hi Dora –

    Kudos to you on your impressive writing. I landed on your site after clicking on one of the tags on my own piece about the Clooney film Up In The Air, which I wrote just yesterday.

    While this post of your is less about the film and more about life choices/circumstances/attitudes that you have made, participated in, or felt – it was still a wonderful read. Thank you.

    My own piece on Up In The Air is not the least bit personal other than presenting my opinion about the film, however, you might enjoy it.

    You can find it here:



    • Yes, I did enjoy your piece, and your thorough work on other movies too. — I agree with you that there’s not as much growth in the Bingham character as one wishes, beyond the recognition that such growth is required; he glimpses the options, takes the path of least resistance, stays “up in the air.”

  2. Hi Dora
    Well I went to the movie expecting great things but left annoyed at its message. You took a great application home- one any preacher would love to be able to deliver- but the message of the movie wasn’t that. It was entirely hopeless and Bingham can only retreat from a hopeless world and retreat “Up In The Air”- above it all- leaving us with a platitude to keep trying. I wanted to punch him in his smug nose [in true Anabaptist fashion 🙂 ].
    I’m glad I went though- because as I was heatedly discussing it with friends, my wife commented that for being annoyed I certainly was giving it a lot of thought. A movie maker can do worse than that 🙂

    • Well, James, sure sorry you left annoyed and for whatever my words may have done to set up your disappointment! 🙂 Bingham certainly doesn’t get very far, that’s for sure, he and his smug nose up in the air. Speaking of application versus message, though, I guess the good or bad news is, we probably often take away something rather different than what preachers thought they were saying.

  3. I finally watched Up in the Air this weekend. The ending reminded me of the original ending to Mark’s Gospel, in which the women, trembling and bewildered, leave the empty tomb without saying anything to anyone. Bingham’s lack of growth, like the women’s silence, puts the question back to the reader/viewer. They didn’t give me the ending I wanted…because the story isn’t over. What part will I write?

  4. Interesting connection, to Mark’s Gospel. The very disappointment of the ending, as you say, confronts the viewer/reader with that important question. — Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Dora, The comment about Mark’s Gospel was mine. I guess I forgot to sign in! I’m looking forward to reading more of your reflections on the TRC residential school testimonies in the MB Herald. There’s another story that leaves many questions for the hearer. Angeline

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