Warning: The following article contains major spoilers of both Heat and Up in the Air.
Every time I see a Jason Reitman film, I am blown away by how well his main characters are developed. His 2009 dramedy Up in the Air is no difference. I could talk about George Clooney's Ryan Bingham for days, but there is an interesting comparison that I would like to explore, and that comparison comes in the form of Robert De Niro's Neil McCauley from Michael Mann's 1995 crime saga Heat (more after the jump).
In terms of genre, these two films couldn't be further apart. However, both of the previously-mentioned characters are meticulously and expertly defined, with controversial theories on life as a whole, and in those theories lies the root of the similarities between these two characters.
Ryan Bingham is a man who flies hub-to-hub with no resemblance of personal attachment, and he explains this lifestyle in his "backpack theory." Here is Bingham's theory on life in full:
"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. 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, compromises. The slower we move the faster we die, and make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically over a lifetime: Star-crossed lovers or monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks."
De Niro's Neil McCauley is a mastermind of a thief. His philosophies are quite similar to those of Bingham, but perhaps because of the character's reserved, cautious behavior, he describes his theory in much more condensed terms:
"A guy told me one time, 'Don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.'"
Both of these philosophies are heartbreaking on paper. Both -- no matter how different in detail -- speak to the negative and inconvenient baggage that comes along with numerous relationships. However, when watching both of these films and getting to know each respective character, the loneliness of what's on paper seems to dissolve ever so slightly simply because these two men love what they do. Both men tackle inherently challenging activities -- Bingham's firings and McCauley's thefts -- and they love doing it. No mater how risky the terrain, they are both enamored by what they do, and that forces us to believe these unfeasible theories that their lives are built upon.
Furthering the similarities between these two men is the new female relationship that they both experience. During each film, the characters enter meaningful romantic relationships, but it is safe to assume that prior to the film, neither character had truly loved a woman before. When Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), and Neil meets Eady (Amy Brenneman), both characters assume this will just be another one-night stand. In spite of this, both Ryan and Neil unintentionally fall in love. Perhaps it is from a deep-rooted need that has never been fulfilled, or maybe each women is simply their perfect match, but regardless of the reason, how heavy each man falls for each woman is undeniable.
Isn't it remarkable how a man's entire life can be altered by meeting a woman in a bar at the end of a long day? Bingham and McCauley have spent their entire adult lives perfecting their lifestyle, perfecting what they do on a daily basis, even loving what they do on a daily basis. Yet all of this becomes irrelevant when they finally experience the power of not only love, but human companionship as a whole.
Where the comparison becomes even more interesting is in the evolution of the characters throughout their respective stories. Bingham surprisingly deals well with being sent home to Omaha because he has a great new woman in his life. He is content with throwing away his life's work for the benefit of being with a woman he cares about. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on how you feel about the Bingham character -- Farmiga's Alex turns out to be a fake; a married woman with a family.
In Michael Mann's film, we know McCauley does in fact give up on Eady. Whether or not this decision contributes to his death is difficult to determine in my opinion, but McCauley still decided to leave the woman he loved to try and save himself, and it ended up being the last decision he ever made.
Heat certainly has a much more concrete ending than Up in the Air, but both films reveal an aspect of tragedy through the way each story develops, but make no mistake, the characters drive both of these stories. Both of these films are driven by the internal decisions of these main characters, and through each film's evolution, we can see how each character has changed (or not changed) from start to finish.
The first image we see of McCauley is him leading a bank robbery; the last one is of his death, in an attempt to escape after committing more crimes. The first time we see of Bingham is in a conference room canning an employee; the last time we see him is at the airport, staring at a slate of departures, unsure where to go. Notice how each character is introduced doing what they do best. Compare those shots of power and control to where they are at the end of the film. How much as each character changed in your opinion?
That's all I have. Feel free to comment on my thoughts, or introduce some of your own in the comments section. Are there any other characters that Clooney's Bingham reminds you of?