Lately, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories that lead real people to harm our shared society. For a change, let’s move on to conspiracy theories that lead fictional people to harm our shared society. Don’t Look Up is a political satire from director/writer Adam McKay about what happens when a corrupt and obscurantist U.S. government discovers that a comet is hurtling toward the Earth. Presented by the filmmakers as an allegory for climate change, the movie depicts the tortured ways in which society avoids reckoning with an impending catastrophe.
My Atlantic colleague Jordan Calhoun has written a characteristically elegant critique of the film in his characteristically excellent newsletter, Humans Being. He argues that the movie goes overboard in its didactic smarm in a way that prevents it from reaching those who don’t already agree with it. “It’s useful to understand why Don’t Look Up failed for so many people,” he concludes, “if only to learn from its mistakes: Bringing together Hollywood’s A-list names in a political satire can make for a dangerous level of navel-gazing that is borderline insufferable. But more importantly, empathy is always more effective than condescension.”
I agree with Jordan’s bottom line—Deep Shtetl is all about dialogue over diatribe—but I disagree with him about this film. I also had mixed feelings about Don’t Look Up, but not because it was smug. My issue was that it wasn’t smug enough.
Let me explain.
I’m a firm believer in judging art by its intended audience and purpose. As the great film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose.” And it’s very clear what is and isn’t on the menu in a production like this.
Walking into an Adam McKay film and expecting nuance and subtlety is like walking into a Wes Anderson film and expecting gothic architecture and a death-metal soundtrack. Audiences go to a Michael Bay movie expecting to see scenery get blown up. They go to a Quentin Tarantino movie expecting to see people get cut up. And they go to an Adam McKay movie expecting to see the neoliberal consensus get messed up. This leftist critique of our ruling class is precisely what the director of The Big Short and Vice has demonstrated he can so ably deliver.
The problem with Don’t Look Up was that it didn’t consistently live up to this expectation of a coherently condescending narrative. Instead of one long leftist allegory about climate change and elite failure, we got a hodgepodge of gags, narrative tangents, and contradictory claims.
At its best, the satire skewered our contemporary political culture with gusto. The film is worth watching alone for a magnificent monologue delivered by Jonah Hill, the Trump-like president’s chief of staff, at a partisan rally, where he declares: “There are three kinds of people in the world: There’s you, the working class. There’s us, the cool rich. And them.” But too much of the time, it wasn’t entirely clear what the film was arguing or what its metaphor was supposed to mean. This problem began with the flawed premise: A blazing comet that one can easily spot in the sky is different from the slow, unseen force of rising climate change. In another movie, ambiguities would be seen as an artistic virtue. But in a McKay film, it’s a failure to meet expectations.
In general, I prefer films that fail in interesting ways to those that succeed in more mundane ones, so I enjoyed Don’t Look Up and its ambitious attempt to satirize our society. But I don’t think it lived up to its promise, and I hope McKay gets more opportunities to produce a singularly smug political parable.
Previously in Deep Shtetl:
I’d Like to Thank the Academy and Also My Trolls
Behind the Scenes With Israel’s Arab Kingmaker
Multiple editions of Deep Shtetl have discussed Mansour Abbas, the Arab politician who brought his party into the current Israeli government and who has almost single-handedly upended the country’s politics. For those of you who have wanted to learn more about him and his worldview, I now have two recommendations—one in English and one in Hebrew.