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Scene from "Don't Look Up"

Astronomers played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio appear in a scene of the new film "Don't Look Up." (Photo: Netflix)

The Critique of Apocalyptic Profit-Seeking in "Don't Look Up" Hits Close to Home

The movie is a parable about an existential threat to the planet and the inability of political leaders to deal with the looming crisis except through a prism of self-interest—both personal and corporate—that ultimately endangers all of humanity.

I'm often accused of being an "easy laugh" when it comes to political satire. I love political cartoons, movies, and TV shows, even those on the other side of the ideological spectrum if they're funny and make me laugh at my own biases.

Just as in real life, the credulous media portrayed in this movie does a terrible job communicating what the disaster means. It is conformist and far from being a watchdog.

That's why I can enjoy conservative cartoonist Sean Delonas' work despite the fact I despise his politics—without feeling I'm somehow betraying former Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers, who is funnier and more accessible than Mr. Delonas on every level.

Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" had me in stitches most nights, and if there has ever been a more hilarious series about the absurdity of American politics than HBO's "Veep," I haven't seen it, but I'm open to suggestions.

Recently, I watched Adam McKay's apocalyptic cautionary tale "Don't Look Up" on Netflix. I laughed out loud enough times to recommend it, even though it isn't nearly as subversive as "Dr. Strangelove" or as razor-sharp a critique of the unholy symbiosis of politics and media in this era as "Network" was about the 1970s.

Still, "Don't Look Up," written by Mr. McKay and David Sirota, is close enough to both to merit a large audience, beyond what you might expect given the plurality of critics dinging it for didacticism. It is as good as "Wag the Dog" and better than "The Big Short," Mr. McKay's film about the economic collapse of 2008-2009.

The last time I looked at Rotten Tomatoes, the dark political comedy had a 55% critics score and a 77% audience score, but it continues to attract lots of eyeballs as Netflix's highest-charting movie of the week, and deservedly so.

For the uninitiated, "Don't Look Up" is a star-studded parable about an existential threat to the planet and the inability of political leaders to deal with the looming crisis except through a prism of self-interest—both personal and corporate—that ultimately endangers all of humanity.

The conceit of the film is that it could easily be about global warming or an especially deadly pandemic, but it happens to be about something that allows us the dignity of ironic distance—a comet larger than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hurtling toward an extinction-level appointment with Earth in six months.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is the Michigan State grad student who first spots the comet while scanning the skies listening to the Wu-Tang Clan one night.

The celebration with classmates over the comet's discovery is cut short when her teacher Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) quickly realizes that the comet's trajectory does not bode well for the continuation of life on Earth.

After convincing the skeptical political appointee running the administration's space program that their discovery is worthy of a meeting with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), the scientists make their case that a mission to divert the comet from its current path has to be mounted immediately.

For her part, President Orlean is too distracted by a bungled Supreme Court nomination fight to focus on something that is "only a 99.78% certainty and not a 100% certainty."

When the scientists demand that the president take the threat to the planet more seriously than midterm congressional losses, she scoffs: "You cannot go around saying to people that there's a 100% chance that they are going to die, you know? [chuckle]. It's just nuts."

Mr. McKay and Mr. Sirota leave no doubt that they believe the pursuit of profit at all costs is the ultimate bad guy in their comedy.

Shades of Dr. Fauci. We've all seen this movie before. Everything about the bombastic president is meant to invite comparisons to Donald Trump, including the portrait of President Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office and photos of her posing with singer Mariah Carey and actor Steven Seagal, not to mention one with former President Bill Clinton that may not be photoshopped.

"I say we sit tight and assess," President Orlean says, hoping to forestall any action that might cause panic in the populace until after the midterms. "Let get some other people in on this. Some Ivy Leaguers…"

Out of frustration, the scientists decide to leak information about the impending apocalypse to mainstream media represented by the fictional New York Herald. The Herald cautiously publishes Kate and Randall's tip, but quickly regrets it after the White House denies ever having met the two, and the Kennedy Space Center denies the accuracy of their calculations.

When the duo go on a nationally televised morning show with their terrifying news, they have to play second fiddle to a breakup-and-reconciliation melodrama because viewers are obsessed with the pop star couple at the center of the spectacle. The show's breezy, superficial anchors (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) immediately trivialize their news, causing a disgusted Kate to break with the ritual of niceness to shout the only truth that should matter in the world:

"Are we not being clear?" Kate explodes. "We're trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed." The morning hosts admit they hear her, but that it is their job to keep bad news light. Kate pushes back at their ridiculous congeniality. "It's supposed to be terrifying," she shouts before stomping off the set. Within minutes, she's turned into a meme synonymous with hysteria.

What strikes me as most accurate about "Don't Look Up," besides its focus on the inability of the ruling political class to comprehend the seriousness of the moment, is how the media reacts to the challenge of false narratives churned out by such obviously self-serving leaders, including tech giants. Just as in real life, the credulous media portrayed in this movie does a terrible job communicating what the disaster means. It is conformist and far from being a watchdog.

One needs only to think back to the exceptionally superficial coverage of the fall of Afghanistan last summer to see that the mainstream media—especially cable news—generally favor spectacle and anecdote over historical context. There are few references to Afghanistan on cable news these days, even though it was obsessed with it a mere four months ago. One can argue that the wall-to-wall coverage left all of us dumber and more outraged in an inchoate way. That's what happens to the people of Earth left to fend for themselves without reliable information between riots and bouts of placid normalcy as the comet approaches.

There's a lot in "Don't Look Up" that is truly impressive. The performances of just about everyone, including the minor characters, are first-rate. Sure, some of the comedic bits are heavy-handed, but so are the performances in "Network" and "Dr. Strangelove." That's the nature of satire.

Political leaders, the military, and even the Elon Musk-like tech mogul who pulls the president's strings are subservient to the craziest whims of late-stage capitalism.

There are inexplicable things in the plot that took me out of the story because they were so startling. There's no reason why FBI agents sent to take Kate into custody after she returned to the Michigan State campus would've drawn their weapons on her or the Planetary Defense Center's African-American director. It was an attempt at a cheap laugh out of step with the integrity of the rest of the film.

Given that all scientists believed that if the comet hit the planet as predicted, it would have the impact of "a billion Hiroshima bombs," there's no way that other countries wouldn't have been putting constant pressure on President Orlean to get her act together, but she seemed to operate in a Trumpian bubble even after the U.S. aborted a deflection mission when a tech boss convinced her that there was $140 trillion in mineral assets to be acquired from mining the comet instead of blowing it up.

"They're talking about letting a comet the size of a mountain hit the planet to jack up a cell phone company's stock," Kate screams upon hearing that news. She's not wrong. Mr. McKay and Mr. Sirota leave no doubt that they believe the pursuit of profit at all costs is the ultimate bad guy in their comedy and that the political leaders, the military, and even the Elon Musk-like tech mogul who pulls the president's strings are subservient to the craziest whims of late-stage capitalism.

It's interesting that Yule (Timothee Chalamet), a pot-obsessed skateboarder who becomes Kate's romantic interest late in the film, is the only character with even a smidgen of interest in the spiritual implications of the apocalypse. During a makeout session, he admits that his parents raised him Evangelical, but he asks Kate not to advertise that fact. He also volunteers to pray on everyone's behalf as the apocalypse closes in. Yule's simple faith provides the film's most dignified and beautiful moment.

My criteria for whether a film is good or not is pretty simple. Do I wish after watching it that I had written it? In the case of "Don't Look Up," the answer is unequivocal: yes!


Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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