Two Oscar Contenders – Up In The Air and The Hurt Locker
Two of the most talked about characters in Oscar-nominated pictures this year are emotionally damaged men deployed to handle bombs in people’s lives. Their approaches to this assignment are very different.
In Up in the Air, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) uses platitudes and a smooth, calm, professional manner to defuse the explosive news that employees are being fired or laid off. He travels through the gutted terrain of corporate America, ravaged by the financial down-turn and the corporate slash and burn policies of downsizing.
In The Hurt Locker, Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) uses a cocky, shoot-from-the-hip, iconoclastic style that is all his own to defuse roadside explosives hidden in sand, cars and the occasional corpse. He travels through the gutted terrain of Iraq ravaged by war, poor planning policies and the smash and burn fury of insurgents.
Although equally emotionally closed, these two characters are very different. This is an object lesson in the importance of understanding why a character does or refuses to do what he does. Although neither man has close intimate family or personal relationships (and in fact both flee from them) these two men represent very different approaches to life and love. The end result might be the same but their motivations and psychological profiles are very different.
Characters driven by the Power of Reason are most often the expert, technician, scientist or professional observer in a story. They have an excellent grasp of details and often have terrific memories and great powers of recall.
In Up in The Air, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is an expert at what he does— firing people. He is a consummate professional, calm, skillful and dispassionately pleasant.
He displays an amazing ability to recall the contents of his subjects’ personnel files. He surprises his colleague Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) by remembering a person took cooking lessons earlier in his career and uses that information to terminate a highly charged interview successfully.
Power of Reason characters dominate a story situation by force of their special expertise, independent thinking, superior knowledge, keen analysis and cool self-containment.
Here Bingham displays his mastery of the airport security line:
Ryan Bingham: Never get behind old people. Their bodies are littered with hidden metal and they never seem to appreciate how little time they have left. Bingo, Asians. They pack light, travel efficiently, and they have a thing for slip on shoes. Gotta love ’em.
Natalie Keener: That’s racist.
Ryan Bingham: I’m like my mother, I stereotype. It’s faster.
Power of Reason characters don’t believe in getting personally involved or emotionally entangled. They always try to maintain a sense of professional distance. They value their independence and their self-sufficiency above all else.
Here Bingham lectures on “How to Empty Your Backpack of Needless Relationships”:
Ryan Bingham: How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life… you start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV… the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home… I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office… and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.
At the end of the movie, Bingham abandons his lecture and makes a leap of faith to connect emotionally and romantically with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman he meets on the road. She tells him early on that “she is him only female”.
Bingham falls for her, shows up at her door and has his heart crushed by this cool, detached and emotionally unavailable woman who strictly compartmentalizes her life. She has a box for home and family as a busy working wife and mother and another box for her life on the road as an unattached high-powered female executive. She coldly calls Bingham “a parenthesis” in her life.
Beneath their superior or distant exterior Power of Reason characters, like Ryan Bingham, are actually quite sensitive and deeply fear being overwhelmed emotionally. These characters experience the rush and intensity of personal emotion as annihilating. This response is the exact opposite of Power of Idealism character’s reaction.
Characters driven by the Power of Idealism want to stand out from the crowd, to be extraordinary, unique and special. They are rebels, iconoclasts, mavericks and artists of all kinds.
Power of Idealism characters are intense, passionate and rebellious. Everyone in the story immediately recognizes and acknowledges that their role is somehow heroic or “larger than than life.” They don’t play by anyone else’s rules.
Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) in The Hurt Locker is a quintessential Power of Idealism character. He is intense, cavalier and is moving swiftly toward becoming a legend. In this exchange, his reputation grows:
Colonel Reed: You the guy in the flaming car, Sergeant James?
Staff Sergeant William James: Afternoon, sir. Uh, yes, sir.
Colonel Reed: Well, that’s just hot shit. You’re a wild man, you know that?
Staff Sergeant William James: Uh, yes, sir.
Colonel Reed: He’s a wild man. You know that? I want to shake your hand.
Staff Sergeant William James: Thank you, sir.
Colonel Reed: Yeah. How many bombs have you disarmed?
Staff Sergeant William James: Uh, I’m not quite sure.
Colonel Reed: Segeant?
Staff Sergeant William James: Yes, sir.
Colonel Reed: I asked you a question.
Staff Sergeant William James: Eight hundred seventy-three, sir.
Colonel Reed: Eight hundred! And seventy-three. Eight hundred! And seventy-three. That’s just hot shit. Eight hundred and seventy-three.
Staff Sergeant William James: Counting today, sir, yes.
Colonel Reed: That’s gotta be a record. What’s the best way to… go about disarming one of these things?
Staff Sergeant William James: The way you don’t die, sir.
Colonel Reed: That’s a good one. That’s spoken like a wild man. That’s good.
A. O. Scott, writing for the New York Times describes James like this: “Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is something else, someone we recognize instantly even if we have never seen anyone quite like him before. He is a connoisseur, a genius, an artist.”
The artistic temperament— and the yearning or longing for or to be “something more extraordinary” creates a white hot intensity of feeling in these characters. In contrast, long-term relationships and the comfortable companionship that committed loving couples (and families) share seem suffocatingly pedestrian.
Power of Idealism characters, operating in their Dark Side, are unprepared to make the ordinary, small, everyday sacrifices real long-term every-day love requires, especially when there are children involved.
In this exchange James explains to his infant son:
Staff Sergeant William James: You love playing with that. You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don’t ya? Yea. But you know what, buddy? As you get older… some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-a-Box. Maybe you’ll realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. And then you forget the few things you really love. And by the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.
James’ character reminds me of another Power of Idealism character addicted to the drug of violence, the Narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club. He feels dead in his ordinary every-day life and must witness extreme pain in support groups to find release, catharsis and peaceful sleep. Soon, even that isn’t enough.
The Narrator (with disgust): “This chick Marla Singer did not have testicular cancer. She was a liar. She had no diseases at all. I had seen her at Free and Clear my blood parasite group Thursdays. Then at Hope, my bi-monthly sickle cell circle. And again at Seize the Day, my tuberculous Friday night. Marla… the big tourist. Her lie reflected my lie. Suddenly I felt nothing. I couldn’t cry, so once again I couldn’t sleep.”
He must then inflict pain on himself and others, through brutal beatings in Fight Club in order to feel anything or even seem alive. However horrific, this violence has an intensity he finds satisfying. Better to feel this than nothing at all.
In Trainspotting, Power of Idealism character, Renton (Ewan McGregor), recounts his Dark Side experience with heroin. The drug’s effects are also intense but horrific. The adrenalin rush of Staff Sergeant James’ work seems much like Renton describes heroin: “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had… multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still nowhere near it.”
Kenneth Turan sums up this feeling writing about The Hurt Locker in The Los Angeles Times: “The film starts with a celebrated quote from the book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” It’s easy to understand this thought intellectually, but by the time this remarkable film (The Hurt Locker) comes to an end, we feel it in our souls.”
Power of Reason characters withdraw from the intimacy of love and family because they are afraid they will feel too much. Power of Idealism characters withdraw from the intimacy of love and family because they are afraid they won’t feel enough.