When Mike Judge’s Idiocracy first came out, I criticized it (wrongly, in retrospect) as being too uncharitable, too mean-spirited, and cruel. I did not have that reaction to Don’t Look Up, the Netflix comet-headed-for-Earth comedy written by Adam McKay (Anchorman) and leftist journalist David Sirota.
Kyle hated it. I thought it was pretty good. I can’t think of a better recent cinematic satire of what political tribalism actually looks like in our own strange time.
Kyle faults the film for failing to live up to Dr. Strangelove, and it doesn’t, but the 2020s offer very different material from the high–Cold War era. Dr. Strangelove’s power comes in part from the contrast between the real-world seriousness of the figures who populated the early-1960s military-industrial complex and the absurdity of the movie’s world. In our time, the absurdity itself is very much in the public square and a political factor in its own right. Meryl Streep’s performance as a trucker-cap-wearing populist president (coded red for Republican, but also a friend of progressive tech titans) is terrifying because it is so easy to imagine such a figure actually being elected president.
Cate Blanchett’s amoral talk-show host may be made up to look like a Fox News anchor, but the show she hosts is much more Good Morning America than it is the partisan stuff that Fox is best known for. Her world is very much our world, rather than a satirist’s parallel universe.
The Bill Gates–type tech tycoon suffers from some heavy-handedness both in the writing and in Mark Rylance’s performance, but it was clever to have him voice the film’s most serious observation — that Leonardo DiCaprio’s sanctimonious scientist is only a “lifestyle idealist”:
You think you’re motivated by beliefs, high ethical beliefs. But you just run towards pleasure and away from pain, like a field mouse.
Putting the truth into the mouth of a fool or a villain is a very old dramatic strategy, deployed everywhere from King Lear to The Matrix, but it remains effective, and I thought it worked nicely in Don’t Look Up.
The parallels to climate change and Covid-19 are emphasized without being leaned into too heavily; but, in a sense, the comet is secondary to the story, which is about an earnest man who enters into a corrupt world with the intention of saving it and instead finds himself corrupted by it, finding reconciliation (in the form of reunification with his estranged life and a truly last supper with his family and friends) only at the very end of things.
Something I often have remarked upon is that many creative people who would recoil from thinking of themselves as conservative end up making fundamentally conservative (which, in the modern American context, is not synonymous with right-wing) art and entertainment, because the eternal truths exercise a nearly irresistible gravity on our stories and, through them, on the people who tell them and the people who hear them. We see this in ways that are sometimes very plain (the frank anti-Communism of Being the Ricardos) and sometimes less obvious, especially to the writers and creators themselves.