Obligatory thoughts on Don’t Look Up

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.

That being said, I do have a critique—albeit one that is perhaps a bit different from the concerns of most reviewers, critical and supportive alike. Don’t Look Up is fundamentally about two aspects of contemporary American politics, which, albeit related, are distinct. The first aspect is the rise of Trump: a bloviating, hyper-rich, culturally proletarian, populist politician from the right who drums up support by railing against a strata of cultural elites while exacerbating the country’s social and economic problems. In Don’t Look Up, not-Trump (Meryl Streep) comes replete with her own hybrid not-Jared Kushner/not-Donald Trump Jr., an annoying, petty, elitist know-it-all who doesn’t know anything.

The second aspect of American politics that the film critiques is the corruption of public office for private benefit. The people running the government are not making decisions based on what’s best for the country, but rather for what can make them the most money or keep their standing highest in the polls. When the scientists tell the president that a comet is headed to destroy the planet, the president’s response is, “What will this do for my poll numbers?” not, “Will we all die?” When a rescue mission is prepared to intercept and divert the comet, likely saving the planet, the president changes her mind at the urging of business leaders who want to mine the comet for rare earth metals. The president’s concern is about the economic benefits to American corporations, rather than how this will affect our attempt to not die.

We are supposed to view these scenes and think of how horrible it is that a stupid, bloviating, and undignified president cares more about poll numbers or political donors than planetary death. As far as a parody of Trump goes, this is all well and good: Satirizing Trump is among the most elementary and trite forms of contemporary comedy, but, among Trump parodies, this is far from the worst.

But it is far more interesting—and far more damning—to raise the prospect that such concerns are not limited to Trump and his merry band of dimwits. When I first watched the scene in which Meryl Streep asks what the comet will do to her poll numbers was a satire of Trump, I did not immediately realize that the butt of the joke was the Trumpian lack of seriousness toward matters of grave national importance. It struck me as perfectly believable to imagine even the most competent, science-believing, Democratic president brushing off warnings of impending doom because of electoral concerns, even if they might not be so gauche as to admit it out loud. The concern about the pernicious effects of money in politics and the power of lobbyists is shared across the political spectrum, and, with a few exceptions, a tech billionaire and neo-futurist is more likely to be found on the big donor lists of the Democratic party than of the Republican party. The self-righteous zeal that business interests and the social good can align through the world of technology—such as, perhaps, generating trillions for the American economy while also staving off planetary destruction—combined with an excessive confidence in the infallibility of technology, are features of major players across the political spectrum, but especially among Silicon Valley liberals.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that the president of the United States in this movie was not a populist Republican but a mainstream Democrat. Would the outcome really be that much different? I don’t actually think it would make much difference, which is a much more searing indictment of the contemporary state of American politics than most of us would wish to believe. In this case, then, the melding of the satires of Trump and the broader political system defangs much of the effect of the latter critique. It becomes too easy to brush off the more challenging critiques by pinning the blame on an easier target.

The other Netflix show I’ve been watching is Borgen, which is the Danish version of the West Wing but way more fun because Danish names are very enjoyable to say aloud. Who needs Sam Seaborn when you have names like Lars Hesselboe and Kasper Juul? My Danish accent, for what it’s worth, is now among my best accents—which is both a commentary on how much Borgen I’ve watched and how terrible my other accents are. Also, the only things I can say in Danish are the names of the characters on Borgen.

The character at the heart of Borgen, Birgitte Nyborg—a morally upstanding, relatively optimistic moderate politician who unexpectedly becomes Prime Minister—faces, in every episode, a similar situation: she is forced to balance between what she thinks is the right thing to do, morally speaking, and what is politically necessary. Politics is a nasty business, even in a country as functional as Denmark, and any politician who refuses to face the dirty reality of actual politics is not long for staying in power. Birgitte is quickly disabused of the notion that she can win with moral certitude alone. She is forced to make tough choice after tough choice, inevitably letting down nearly every person she is close to.

Birgitte is a paragon of what the average liberal thinks a politician should be: she genuinely cares about doing what is right, she is not corrupt, and she is moderate (she is literally the leader of the Moderate party—which, in American terms, would make her a far-left radical). Yet in every instance, doing what is right is not enough, because politics demands far more than that. In some cases, she sticks to her positions and suffers the consequences; in others, she compromises, and suffers the consequences.

Conservative writer Kevin Williamson describes Don’t Look Up as a story “about an earnest man who enters into a corrupt world with the intention of saving it and instead finds himself corrupted by it.” A similar line could be written about Birgitte in Borgen, although the extent to which she is corrupted is debatable. The difference, though, is that Birgitte is actually in a position of power, and therefore her decisions have real consequences. She is trying to fight for what is best for the entire society, yet her efforts to do so yield mixed results at best. Surely a comet-hailing whistleblower entering Borgen would be received very differently than the protagonists of Don’t Look Up are received by Meryl Streep’s Trumpian president. Yet we could still imagine Birgitte facing strong headwinds from the plethora of political forces that constantly hinder her ability to smoothly pursue the path toward justice—and that is the case in a relatively functional political system. In the American case, as Don’t Look Up makes clear, the headwinds toward concerted action span social and political lines, which is an uncomfortable reality for all of us. We are all complicit.

Making fun of Trump is cheap and easy; it is to stand-up comedy what cursing or crudeness are. It can elicit easy laughs, and basically nothing more. Highlighting the more complex problems with American politics, which are less easily distilled into simplified categories of good and bad or right and wrong, is much more difficult but potentially much more rewarding. In some ways, the failure of the satire in Don’t Look Up is not that it is too obvious, but rather that it is too muddled: the satire of Trump and the satire of the broader political system are merged together in a way that makes it unclear what the point of this polemic really is.

In this case, leaving Trump out of the picture might have made the satire better on all counts: more barbed, more challenging, and funnier. And, of course, it would be a much better film—although, as Don’t Look Up makes clear, the entertainment allure of politics is what matters most to the power players in DC and beyond. And if it didn’t make fun of Trump, would anybody even watch it?