If having a take on Ted Lasso was the defining feature of “being a writer” in America in the first three-quarters of 2021, having a take on Don’t Look Up was the defining feature of writerdom for at least the final four-to-five days. Here is where I show that I am a real “writer” who is “relevant” because of all of my thoughts about topics that are part of the zeitgeist.
Similar to Ted Lasso (on which I have written many thoughts; perhaps I will publish them at some point, but don’t get your hopes up that I will do so any time soon. I prefer to publish only after things become irrelevant—it’s a personal brand thing), the critical response—and the critical response to the critical response—to Don’t Look Up are more revealing and intriguing than the content itself. Most sentient viewers, from what I’ve seen, agree that Don’t Look Up is not a piece of high art by any stretch of the imagination. It is blunt, in-your-face, and heavy-handed in its satire; if the movie attempted to look up the word “subtle” in the dictionary, it would not be able to find it, even if the page was already turned to words from “submarine” to “succor.” Like a Shakespeare play, you already know the plot before it starts, and there is no chance of some hidden meaning or unexpected twist at any point in the movie.
Most critics, though, still find something to dislike in the movie. Conservatives tend to dislike it because it reeks of the condescending, smarter-than-thou liberal harping about Donald Trump and the stupidity of Americans. The movie’s parallels to Trump are, like the rest of the movie, not subtle: the chant “Don’t Look Up” mirrors the cadence of “Lock Her Up,” and the fictional president, brandishing a MAGA-like hat, makes cultural appeals to supporters (who are described as “white working class”) and claims the cosmopolitan elites (the “not cool rich”) are trying to take their country away from them. They are portrayed as rednecks who eat up the president’s rhetoric and willingly blind themselves to reality until it’s too late.
Liberal critics hate it because it is so devoid of subtlety that it does not even pretend to think that it might be “art”—and because liberals, too, are targets of unabashed satire. It is not Trump and his followers who are obviously to blame for America’s failure to prevent its own destruction; instead, liberal elites are part and parcel of the country’s collective failure. The media and the entertainment industry, in particular, are complicit. They are keen to avoid uncomfortable ideas, partisan disagreements, or anything serious, lest it hurt their profits or their access to power. Both new and old media are so caught up in self-congratulatory ladder-climbing and an insatiable need to drive clicks and generate profits that they have lost all conception of any kind of larger public good. Everything is superficial entertainment, and exposing the truth is driven by a desire for personal recognition in the halls of power than serving society.
The editors of the not-New York Times newspaper (whose font looks rather similar to that of the New York Times and which seems to command the same respect in the media world as the New York Times) seem like they are the good guys: they are ready to break a big story in the name of public interest, to hold our government accountable. Yet it soon becomes clear that all they really value are click-through rates on their stories (replete with fancy consulting presentations about what stories are getting clicks) and looking respectable with political elites. “The Daily Rip,” the hottest talk show in the DC politico world, is the movie’s highlight. The show’s tagline—”keep it light, keep it fun”—succinctly encapsulates the thin (and thinning) line between politics and entertainment. The fact that the entire media ecosystem fawns over the show and would sell their souls to get an appearance on it is indicative of what the movie’s writers think of the world of media, both old and new.
This is a far cry from a David Foster Wallace-level critique of the unstoppable allure of television or The Entertainment—but if you accept that the movie is a polemic from start to finish, it’s moderately entertaining. A comet is not a perfect metaphor for climate change, and there is really only one joke that is genuinely funny: the repeated bewilderment that a three-star general charges them for free snacks. But it is hardly a terrible movie, and anyone with even a modicum of experience in the elite world of DC media will confirm that at least some of the barbs are well-deserved.
Continue reading →