A comedy nails the media apocalypse
By Ben Smith
After the president, a former nude model, tries to cover up a major discovery, two astronomers leak the news to a New York newspaper known for its Gothic banner, which the new film “Don’t Look Up” calls The New York Herald: A comet is going to destroy the earth in six months.
The journalists are sober and passionate as they get down to work in a glass conference room. They publish the blockbuster, then send the pair of scientists off to an influential morning news program, “The Daily Rip” — think “Morning Joe,” with a dash of “Live With Kelly and Ryan” — to promote the news. And that’s when things start to go awry. “Keep it light, fun,” one producer tells the scientists, who are played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. As soon as they sit down, the Joe Scarborough proxy, played by an irresistible Tyler Perry, leans in to ask what’s really on his mind: Is there life on other planets?
After putting up with the morning-show-style banter for much of the segment, Lawrence’s character has had enough. “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun,” she yells. “Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying and unsettling and you should stay up all night, every night, crying.”
The clip of her losing it on the air earns wide attention — as a meme that gets likes and laughs on social media. Her boyfriend, a reporter for a sardonic news site called Autopsy, moves fast to make the most of her outburst under a two-sentence headline that’s its own kind of internet cliche: “You Know the Crazy Chick Who Thinks We’re All Going to Die? I Actually Slept With Her.”
Back at The Herald, a social media specialist delivers a slick PowerPoint presentation to show that the story isn’t driving much traffic. The news cycle moves on.
I’m a little hesitant to praise a political movie, because Hollywood’s political statements tend to be vapid. Talk is cheap, and an impassioned outburst at an awards show is free. True spontaneous passion is usually reserved for, say, defending the method acting involved in the show “Succession.” What makes “Don’t Look Up” interesting is that its writer and director, Adam McKay, is putting his money, and his career, where his mouth is.
Since breaking out with “Anchorman,” a broad parody of local TV news, he has made a pair of films with a political edge, “The Big Short,” a gonzo take on the financial crisis, and “Vice,” the bitterly comic story of Vice President Dick Cheney. “Don’t Look Up” has a raft of stars — the president is played by Meryl Streep — and the familiar arc of big-budget disaster flicks like “Armageddon” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” But while all of McKay’s films have been attuned to the intertwined roles of media and politics, this is his first movie since “Anchorman” to put the news media squarely in its sights.
The new opus shows McKay as “one of America’s most incisive media critics, even if he’s not necessarily recognized that way,” said David Sirota, a co-producer of the film, who is better known as a combative journalist who advised Sen. Bernie Sanders during his 2020 presidential campaign and now runs The Daily Poster, an investigative news site.
McKay said he tried five different ideas that would allow him to make a movie about the climate crisis, but nothing worked. “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years, without exaggeration, since the Chicxulub comet, bigger than the Black Plague, bigger than Krakatoa?” he said, describing the question that kept him up at night.
“How can we be looking at the greatest story in human history,” he continued, “but most nights I’m not hearing it talked about — or when it is being talked about, it’s in the fourth block, or the ninth story down?”
He hit on the solution while talking one night in January 2019 with Sirota, who was venting about the news media’s passive reaction to climate change, saying it was as if a meteor was headed for Earth and no one seemed to get it. Soon, the two were texting plot points back and forth.
“Don’t Look Up” is populated by politicians and Silicon Valley madmen denying reality for their own reasons, behaving in ways that are recognizably self-interested and deluded. But the real villain is a news media that is forever chasing after a distracted audience and, as a result, simply … cannot … focus.
When the two scientists emphasize the reality of the coming apocalypse during their appearance on “The Daily Rip,” the host played by Perry is singularly focused on one thing: whether the meteor will take out his ex-wife’s house in Florida. The other host, played by Cate Blanchett as a charming, hyper-educated, amoral stand-in for Mika Brzezinski, is more interested in the DiCaprio character’s nerdy sex appeal.
In a twist right out of the movie itself, much of the publicity for “Don’t Look Up” has been focused on Hollywood gossip. Early in the rollout, McKay told Vanity Fair that he hadn’t spoken with his longtime partner Will Ferrell, the star of “Anchorman” and other McKay films, including “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights,” since he cast a different actor to play the lead in a planned HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers.
Seeing a Hollywood spat push aside an earnest message on climate change was “almost hilariously ironic,” McKay said. (Then he spent a few more minutes talking about how the chatter about him and Ferrell wasn’t quite accurate. For the record: “That’s not why Will and I split up — we’d been split up for three months. That turned us into not talking.” OK!)
McKay was also unable to stay out of the fray over actor Jeremy Strong’s interview with The New Yorker last week about his role in the show “Succession,” of which McKay is also an executive producer.
Good journalism is always a balance between telling people what they want to hear and what they need to know. McKay’s contention is that decades of a hyperactive media market, and years of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, have thrown things out of whack.
When it comes to the climate story, the media’s failings are undeniable, and there is still a wide gap between the urgency and the attention it commands. However, the journalism on the topic has grown more urgent in tone and more widely seen over the past few years. It’s harder-edged, more numerate and more closely connected to the floods, fires and December tornadoes that have upended millions of people’s lives.
But great satire amplifies obvious truths, and there’s no doubt that “Don’t Look Up” contains those moments of recognition. David Roberts, the author of the clean energy newsletter Volts, called it “the first good movie about climate change.”
The global failure to slow carbon emissions, like the failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic, is partly a story about hard science. But it’s more about society’s ability or inability to take action, and the news media had played a large role in that willful turning away from a difficult truth. “Don’t Look Up” ends — spoiler alert! — badly for humanity, but before it does, a Fox News-style host whistles manically past the grave. We’ll be moving on, he tells his viewers as the world is ending, to “the story that everyone is talking about tonight — topless urgent care centers.”