Frank Rich, Still Searching for Political Relevance

And you thought "Up in the Air" was just holiday entertainment. Frank Rich tells us it's actually "using the power of pop culture to salve national wounds that continue to fester in the real world."

Frank Rich's latest column is on a holiday movie release getting good buzz, "Up in the Air," a comedy-drama about a professional downsizer played by George Clooney. "Hollywood's Brilliant Coda to America's Dark Year." Just as he tried to do with the "balloon boy" saga, Rich tried to make political resonance out of a pop culture moment, struggling to turn the movie into a soliloquy on "the power of pop culture to salve national wounds that continue to fester in the real world."

On Christmas Day, Hollywood will blanket America with a most unlikely holiday entertainment. That's when "Up in the Air," the acclaimed new movie starring George Clooney, will spread from its big-city engagements to more than 2,000 screens. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate road warrior for a small, Omaha-based contractor hired to lay off employees for companies that prefer to outsource that unpleasant task. Ryan has fired so many people in so many cities that he is approaching a frequent-flier status unknown to all but a few Americans.


How could a film with that premise be a Christmas hit in a country reeling from the highest unemployment rate in decades? By using the power of pop culture to salve national wounds that continue to fester in the real world.


Here is an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can't see or know. "Up in the Air" may be a glossy production sprinkled with laughter and sex, but it captures the distinctive topography of our Great Recession as vividly as a far more dour Hollywood product of 70 years ago, "The Grapes of Wrath," did the vastly different landscape of the Great Depression.


What gives our Great Recession its particular darkness - and gives this film its haunting afterlife - is the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us. In the shorthand of the day, it's the dichotomy between Wall Street and Main Street, though that oversimplifies the divide. This disconnect isn't just about the huge gap in income between the financial sector and the rest of America. Nor is it just about the inequities of a government bailout that rescued the irresponsible bankers who helped crash the economy while shortchanging the innocent victims of their reckless gambles. What "Up in the Air" captures is less didactic. It makes palpable the cultural and even physical chasm that opened up between the two Americas for years before the financial collapse.