Adam McKay’s new film isn’t about our era. It’s about us.
“Well, you know, first of all, I don’t believe any numbers anymore, I’m sorry. This has been politicized.” That’s Indiana’s Attorney General talking about his own state’s official COVID statistics. He opposes a vaccine mandate in the middle of the most deadly pandemic in a century. Former President Trump gets booed by supporters as he gives a rousing defense of vaccines in several interviews. Shocked super-fan Candace Owens excuses the ex-president’s behavior by informing her confused followers that he’s too old to know how to do his own research on the internet.
Is anyone surprised anymore by this parade of absurdities? We’ve been living with them for years. More than a decade ago George Packer observed that the Iraq War was a “stress test” for America, and “every major system and organ failed”—government, the military, non-profits, the media, even professional sports leagues, which charged the Pentagon millions of dollars for staged displays of patriotism. The affliction Packer diagnosed back in the aughts—”ideological rigidity bordering on fanaticism, an indifference to facts, an inability to think beyond the short term, the dissolution of national interest into partisan advantage”—has only become more acute.
There were a few moments in the Iraq War’s early days when I almost believed the magnitude of the disaster would force the nation back towards competence. Would we really allow something as destructive of our national credibility as the Iraq fiasco to go unfixed? But Iraq was far away, soon it was the previous administration’s error, and America did what it always does: “moved on.”
What will happen when a crisis that does touch home—one that can’t be spun, deflected, or ignored—shows up? Will we finally get it together then? Don’t Look Up, the new Netflix film written and directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Big Short, Vice), imagines an answer, and defies you to find any other. As an artifact of its climate-change-and-COVID era, it is about neither. It’s about us.
The plot is completely insane and utterly believable. Midwestern astronomers Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiaski (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet that will strike earth, creating an extinction-level event in six months. They inform the nation’s president (Meryl Streep) of the threat; she finds ways to ignore the crisis. The scientists turn to the media, which is equally unresponsive. The president eventually hands the problem to a Silicon Valley crony who tries to exploit the comet for its trillions of dollars worth of rare minerals. The mission fails. The comet strikes earth. Cut to black.
Reactions to the film vary wildly, depending, I suppose, on temperament. If you’re pleased at simply not being lied to, you’ll find the movie refreshing. Or you might find yourself echoing the Twitter user who complained, “It’s depressing. It’s angering. It seems to be openly hostile to democracy. Worst, it’s a comedy that isn’t funny at all.”
Gary Kramer at Salon finds much of it “offensive,” faults McKay for not making Lawrence’s character “a young woman of color,” and concludes, without irony: “This end of the world comedy should have just been more fun.” (Perhaps more like Total Devastation, the film within Don’t Look Up that is slated for release on the day of the comet’s impact and vouched for by a certain Farley, who reports “It’s a lot of fun”?) Luke Goodsell at ABC: “McKay’s contempt for pop culture is frequently tiresome . . . he just doesn’t know how to let people enjoy things—even if it is their own destruction.” David Fear at Rolling Stone faults the film for never finding “a way to crawl out of the tarpit of its own bone-deep despair.” (My response: “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”)
Some viewers of Don’t Look Up are confused as to its genre. How to label it? It’s very funny, but the comedy cuts a little too close to the bone (social media lights up with comments like “Me likey hunky star man!” after Mindy appears on TV), and the earth is devastated at the end. Is it a disaster movie in the tradition of 1990s blockbusters such as Armageddon? The White House eventually tries to stage its response as such, but their designated hero (Colonel Drask, played by Ron Perlman) ends up mimicking General Patton, firing his pistol at the approaching comet and shouting ineffectual defiance. Is it satire? Maybe, but it’s not really telling us much we don’t know or skewering any targets that aren’t already well-skewered. (We aren’t in the 1950s anymore, when truth could barely be found outside Lenny Bruce’s Greenwich Village basement, or I. F. Stone’s mimeographed newsletter. Anyone can Google George H. W. Bush dismissing the very idea of attempting to head-off climate change in 1992: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation, period.”)
Younger viewers especially seem to object to the genre-bending character of some films. I consider it a plus. Films like this—War Machine is another—subvert our consumerist approach to art. (“Hmm, what am I in the mood for tonight, pizza or Mexican?”)
The film is more tragedy than comedy. As Aristotle classically put it, in a tragedy a hero’s own qualities contain the flaw that spells his undoing. The film’s heroes—Mindy and Dibiaski—want to warn the world of impending disaster. But they blow it. Mindy is too scholarly and media unsavvy, and he turns into a love-sick puppy in the hands of TV host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett). He is even co-opted by the administration, becoming its science advisor and making upbeat ads for TV. Dibiaski, for her part, lets her hysterics undermine her message. When she does finally get an audience she sparks a riot. Like Mindy, she’s not strong enough to meet this test; she retreats into drugs and apolitical apathy. Every system fails, including academics with their oft-mentioned “peer-reviewed!” studies. Farcical tragedy seems an appropriate way to greet this predicament.
I confess I wasn’t expecting any better cinematic take on American religion in 2021 than Brad Ingelsby’s masterclass on the Catholic imagination Mare of Eastown (also a meditation on limits). Like Inglesby, McKay knows his way around the world of faith—his mother is described as “born again”—and he finds the perfect spot to bring it in. On impact day Mindy takes Dibiaski and her new boyfriend Yule (Timothée Chalamet) back to his home. He reconciles with his wife over some mutual confession, and the family and guests have one last supper. After going around the table saying what they’re thankful for, someone suggests a prayer, but the Mindys aren’t religious. Awkwardness ensues until Yule, a semi-alienated skate-boarding evangelical says, “I got this,” and delivers a final benediction for them, and for us all.
Yule’s prayer, heartfelt and sentimental in the evangelical vein, is pitch-perfect, and as the gathered compose a kind of tableau, the comet plunges into the sea, tsunamis and firestorms are unleashed, and earth is destroyed.
After all the cynical manipulation, dishonest maneuvering, calculating cowardice, and ridiculous bluster, Yule’s prayer is a meaningful reminder that at the end of the day all the wisdom, science, and heroics in the world will fail each of us, and comfort and consolation are what we will want most—and in fact, be the only things that help.
John H. Haas teaches U.S. history at Bethel University in Indiana