by James Billot
Monday, 27
December 2021
Review
07:00

Adam McKay: another satirist lost to activism

His latest film's agenda is painfully obvious
by James Billot

Adam McKay used to be one of America’s finest satirists. He won several Oscar nominations for his darkly comic The Big Short about the 2008 Great Recession and excoriating portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice, which were both powerful critiques of how ordinary Americans can suffer from elite crises.

The shift has become all too familiar, but his latest film Don’t Look Up (a heavy-handed attempt at raising awareness about climate change) goes long on activism and short on satire. The film’s laundry-list of targets is reduced to half-baked caricatures that are all too rarely relieved by moments of genuine humour. 

The most obvious example is the premise itself: an incoming comet due to hit Earth in six months will be an extinction-level event, but two astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) cannot convince anyone in the thinking class — the president, a Big Tech CEO, the media — to take the threat seriously. Yet what begins as a seemingly futile attempt to get people to listen assumes a political character as it becomes clearer in the second half who McKay’s main target is: you guessed it, it’s the science-denying Right. 

This is best captured by the film’s eponymous title, in which DiCaprio pleads with the public to ‘just look up’ [at the sky], a statement that is immediately inverted by Right-wing president Meryl Streep, who tells her followers on the campaign trail: “don’t look up”. Her supporters — or  “dumb rednecks” as her son and incompetent chief of staff Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) describes them — all yip with delight at this ‘let’s go Brandon’ style chant. And in case the Trump parallels weren’t apparent, the point is fully rammed home when Hill tells the base:

There’s three types of Americans. There are: you, the working class, us the cool rich, and then ‘them’. I’m sorry but we need them because you build us up to fight them… do you understand?
- Jason Orlean

Particularly hard to stomach are the moments in the film in which DiCaprio turns into a Fauci-like celebrity-scientist, whose earnest warnings about the planet’s impending doom are met with derision by the Alex Jones-like conspiracists and comet-denying Republicans.

These overtly political scenes bear the fingerprints of McKay’s co-writer David Sirota, a former Bernie Sanders advisor, but that is not to say the film is not a complete dud. Some of the critiques of celebrity culture and social media ring true, showing how a serious message can be memeified and watered down to the point of meaninglessness; there is also a somewhat amusing (if a little overdone) portrayal of an all-powerful Big Tech CEO who, though resembling an extraterrestrial Tim Cook, is clearly an Elon Musk reference.

But the film is ruined by how nakedly it serves its agenda — right down to the unhappy ending in which (spoiler alert), the comet hits Earth. McKay says he did this because he wants “people to see a movie that ends where people don’t work to get the happy ending — hopefully some people will have a reaction to that.” Thanks, Adam.

There is much that is worthy of satire about our complex times. But another catastrophist film about our impending doom and the bone-headed Right wingers who refuse to admit it is not it.

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Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
7 months ago

A shame, because there can be few targets worthier of satire than climate activists, but then The Big Short carefully dodged any insight into just why banks had been lending money to subprime mortgage risks in the first place.

Hersch Schneider
Hersch Schneider
7 months ago

Yup, yet more preachy Hollywood agenda-filled woke bullsh*t.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago

I confess I disagree. I quite enjoyed the film (and the writers went through pains not to give an explicit political affiliation to the president – you clearly filled the dots).
I too found the best bits the ones with an unrecognisable Cate Blanchett (how much work has she had done?)

Anyway, I have read a few negative reviews (accompanied by very many negative comments to them). It seems that this film pleases the viewer, but not the critic.

Last edited 7 months ago by Andrea X
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I agree Andrea, I really enjoyed the film.
One can look at it from two angles. The left wing was just AS mocked as the right wing. In fact, there were hardly any representations of the left ( except the scientists if you can call them left). The media was shown as disinterested, (true in the real world) the scientists were shown as bumbling and ineffective (here they were all in agreement, not at odds with each other, which is not true), but the politicians in cahoots with the tech which was true representation, so where was the left? It was world devoid of left. Perhaps that’s what made it so interesting!

Last edited 7 months ago by Alka Hughes-Hallett
Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago

And the public shown as just as disinterested.
In Meryl Streep’s defence (and her son’s), we you are continually hit by doom scenarios, after a while you stop noticing or at best you “sit tight and assess”.

Karl Schuldes
Karl Schuldes
7 months ago

Since when are the media “disinterested”? Do you mean uninterested?

Fiona Archbold
Fiona Archbold
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I thoroughly enjoyed it too, as a fictional story highlighting the media and the politicians focussing on the wrong things. The last two minutes when the key politician received their just deserts caused me and my daughter to laugh out loud. Then we laughed at the parallels in today’s world and agreed we need more common sense from those elites. So in our house the film brought two generations together, for that I say well done!!!!!

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Fiona Archbold

Indeed. That was my overall take on the film.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Fiona Archbold

Did you miss the very last bit during the closing credits?

Matt B
Matt B
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Andrea thanks. Will give it a second try, based on your comments, after what seemed to me to be a bad start running the risk of killing all seriousness and any good points through shrillness and slapstick. Perhaps I have ‘American Apocalypto Film Fatigue’ after so many End-Is-Nighs worthy of a Bible-Belt jamboree. The Big Short hit nails, and climate change still deperately needs a good treatment. But will this effort, using the bad proxy of a comet, convince those most needing to be brought on board – including those so sympathatically portrayed in Dopesick, with real people dying – now – en masse? Nope. Half-way through, and it is more Airplane meets Day After Tomorrow than tightly targeted satire. Its narrative and messaging are all over the place (it may become a benchmark for climate science opponents). As for climate change itself – see the small-budget docu-drama (which this film badly mimics) on the real-life hero Prof Phil Jones (UEA Climate Research unit) after his awful “Climategate” experience. Reality, kept simple, can be far more convincing – without the US pre-mid-term hot-button pressing to left and right. It’s a shame to see DiCaprio in such a schmaltzy B movie. Waiting for the comet to end it. Phew.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt B
Max Beran
Max Beran
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt B

“Phil”, not “Steve” Jones.

Matt B
Matt B
7 months ago
Reply to  Max Beran

I know – corrected. A memory-flip with Prof Steve Jones (UCL/’Coral’).

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt B
Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt B

Much that is fair here. More artful cultural/political cinematic commentaries have been made. Including by McKay.

Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I’m a critic, and it pleased me. The fact is that far fewer people discuss films with happy endings. And absolutely no one is moved to action by them.

Interestingly enough, neither COVID nor climate change, though both are highly politicized, should be political issues. They are matters of fact, and of attention to (as opposed to ignoring or suppressing) facts. Some might claim that in both spheres of fact-contention the alarmists command the floor nevermind that the facts are not on their side. But I feel this film reveals that climate alarmists and COVID dissenters have more in common than many might suppose. For while it might look to some like the world is bowing to eco-tyranny, the impotency of COP suggests otherwise, that is, it suggests that mere lip service is being paid to the alarmists. The truth, in this critic’s humble opinion, is that both climate alarmists and COVID dissenters are losing to the money that makes this dirty awful lying cheating world go round.

And to those who scold McKay and Sirota for being too on-the-nose, I quote poor Dr. Mindy: “Not everything has to be clever all the time! Sometimes we need to just be able to say things to people!” Amen. Especially if the things we’re trying to say are hard to get out (often because they’re hard to hear).

Last edited 7 months ago by Mark Thomas Lickona
David Bell
David Bell
7 months ago

I saw the film and I immediately cottoned on to the anti-Trump message. I don’t like being manipulated so I decided to reverse the propaganda and the protagonists’ roles. The idiotic President, a woman of course (Meryl Streep), I decided to read as Kamala Harris and the WH staff as similarly sycophantic, deluded progressives. I didn’t see DiCaprio and his team as econuts but rather, just scientists doing their job. Similarly, the “don’t look up” rally I decided was another Progressive love-in. That fixed the plot to my satisfaction and I sat back and enjoyed the film (which actually isn’t that good).

Last edited 7 months ago by David Bell
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
7 months ago
Reply to  David Bell

I (but unconsciously) did the same. I saw the president immediately as progressive – maybe because they are now in power and no less manipulative, power hungry, ignorant and concerned with optics. Even more so perhaps.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
7 months ago

Interesting. I didn’t see the Cook character as Musk but Gates, especially given the reference to his spectacular level of donating granting him influence at the highest levels of governmental decision making.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
7 months ago
Reply to  Glyn Reed

I saw an older Zuckerberg, who had become the person he is trying to be.

Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
7 months ago

Peter Isherwell targeting children was a clear Zuckerberg dig.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
7 months ago

I agree with the writer here with the exception that McKay already did this on Vice. What I had thought was an absurdist satire in the excellent Big Short was actually the literal world view of McKay. Sadly for someone who can be so entertaining, his works are fundamentally partisan conspiracy theories. He got away with it first time round but now his delusion’s are impossible to ignore.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matthew Powell
Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago

I concur with the general thrust of this critique. The box-ticking was risibly blatant, and there was even a scene in which “virtue-signalling” was rigorously defended.
However, I think you are being a little po-faced about it all.
“There is much that is worthy of satire about our complex times”.
Well indeed: Such as a president of the United States initially denying the existence of a serious virus epidemic (“It’ll be gone in a few days”), as tens of thousands of people were dying in hospitals across the country, and epidemiologists were issuing dire warnings; Or millions of Republican voters refusing to accept that their candidate lost by some 7 million votes, and doggedly subscribing to some hare-brained, swivel-eyed conspiracy theory.
Truth and facts have transformed into negotiable commodities, and the film at least succeeded in highlighting this disturbing trend.
And let’s face it: Netflix, along with most other streaming services and major public networks, has become irredeemably woke.
That ain’t gonna change any time soon, sadly.
And, unlike with the publicly funded BBC, balance and objectivity are not part of its mandate.

Last edited 7 months ago by Eddie Johnson
Aron T
Aron T
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Climate change is not the same as a comet hitting the Earth. The trajectory of a comet is built on mathematical laws that are well proven and tested for hundreds of years. Climate change is a projection built on statistical models. And that is a critical distinction which climate activists refuse to acknowledge. Moreover, “belief in climate change” does not mean “I think those models are probably more or less predicting a likely direction”. It is akin to an evangelical belief in the end of days which requires radical changes to our economic and social lives. Anyone unwilling to accept those policy changes as absolutely necessary is an evil sinner bringing doom to humanity. If the film mocked the evangelical fervor of climate change activists along with the “cash in on nutty conspiracy theory” act of the Alex Jones of the world, that would be satire. Instead, this is more religious propaganda and moral shaming of the “deplorables”

Last edited 7 months ago by Aron T
Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Aron T

I agree with much of that well-argued point.
But just because Netflix and McKay predictably chose to mock the fact-denying Right in this instance, rather than take on the equally reality-distorting, wokeist Left should not detract from the satirical merit of the film, which, in my opinion, landed a few well-warranted blows.
And have you seen a film or TV feature in recent years which has not been desperate to brandish its oh-so right-on, progressive credentials to its largely younger audiences?
The media landscape is what it is: leftwing and woke – as is its output, unsurprisingly.

Last edited 7 months ago by Eddie Johnson
Matt B
Matt B
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

The film strikes me as a revenue-hunting style-over-substance spaghetti of mixed messaging and dog-whistles to everyone – except the vulnerable less able to (ie unable to afford to) escape their daily grinds, adapt or even ‘look up’ – at film-set smugness. The film slagging off everything but the maker is hardly original – it seems to pick ‘n mix from others. Instead, it is actor-vism of the worst kind: raw celeb emotion spilled onto gold brocade sleeve. By the way, climate science and its activists should not be conflated: the science is good; the public is not that bad; but quite a few activists and celebs are arguably barking mad – and risk reversing recent progress. Many want to loudly claim as their own those small quiet successes by people more modest. Enough.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt B
Max Beran
Max Beran
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt B

“the science is good” writes Matt B. “The” science is not science as conventionally understood. It is (as was set up by its IPCC remit) to be purely confirmatory. It takes the form, “given the truth of the hypothesis what is the likelihood of the evidence”, not as is conventional, “given the evidence, what is the likelihood that the hypothesis is true.” The former lacks the latter’s key elements regarding contrary evidence and alternative hypotheses. The other components of IPCC “science” concerning impacts and policies (WG2 and WG3) are in consequence of the nature of garbage-in, garbage-out.

Mark Thomas Lickona
Mark Thomas Lickona
7 months ago
Reply to  Max Beran

This is a winsome summation of the alleged “climate chicanery” of the alarmists… could you give an example of their “upside-down” science?

Matt B
Matt B
7 months ago
Reply to  Aron T

Don’t confuse science and policy. Science has been on track; policy is another matter, and may be effective or not.

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

In what scene did they defend virtue signalling?

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I distinctly remember the line “and then they accuse us of virtue-signalling”.
I’ll check again tonight and get back to you…

Andrea X
Andrea X
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

I am sure they did, I just didn’t notice. 😉

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Eddie – it’s not weird to have followed US Elections for 50-60 years and be left scratching your head about the 2020 election. An old white man garners record-breaking number of votes despite neither he nor Harris generating much Democrat interest in the primaries, outside of South Carolina.
We are barely 10 years on from Obama romping home against McCain/Palin, where the excitement was palpable and McCain was cast as a man out of his time. What changed?
A major election went “dark” with one candidate leading, and came back into the “light” with the other having the momentum. It deserved a forensic post audit, if only because the election was unique in the amount of postal votes cast due to CoVid.
However distasteful people find Trump, the end does not justify the means if it normalises election chicanery.

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Dustin Needle

Fair point.
However, the “big steal” proponents have consistently failed to explain how or why thousands of loyal and committed republican secretaries of state, judges, local election officials, state legislatures and even Trump’s own appointee, Attorney General Barr would conspire to ensure their own party lost the election and they their livelihoods.
Who does that? En masse? Seriously?
Or why no meaningful evidence of fraud or tampering has ever been produced or found to be anything more than wishful thinking, dubious anecdote or outright fabrications.
Similarly, how was it possible to orchestrate an electoral fraud on this massive, country-wide scale without any of the countless thousands of complicit “conspirators” eventually leaking or even selling their world-shattering revelations to a tabloid for a fortune?
In fact the only verifiable proof of attempted electoral manipulation or fraud was the recorded phone call between Trump and the Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, in which the president tried to cajole him into changing the election result, ie cheat.
Douglas Murray, whose opinions I greatly respect, actually travelled to the US shortly after the election and spoke to many Republicans and law makers.
His conviction upon his return was that there was absolutely no evidence of fraud on the scale required to manipulate the election result.
Together with my own observations, that was good enough for me.

Last edited 7 months ago by Eddie Johnson
Warren T
Warren T
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

It is becoming increasingly clear that indeed Trump lost the election by not having enough “votes”. The question, however, is how many of these “votes” for Biden/Harris were cast legally and/or legitimately.
In typical legalistic fashion, the left can argue that the wing-nuts are insane by questioning the outcome of the election, due to the number of “votes” counted, yet if just enough of those “votes” were completely fraudulent, due to a number of increasingly revealed factors, then the wing-nuts have a point.
The truth will likely be revealed after a congressional inquiry several years from now.
Bottom line, I agree with Dustin in that it is hard to believe so many people turned out to vote against the bad yellow man and less than 1 year later exhibit incredible buyer’s remorse.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
7 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

Can a congressional inquiry conjure-up the records, both paper and electronic, that have been destroyed (quite accidentally, of course.)

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Warren T

You fail to address ANY of the (legitimate) points I made, opting instead to burrow further down your own labyrinthian rabbit hole.
Simply being a sore loser, is no substitute for hard evidence – of which you have produced none whatsoever.

Matt B
Matt B
7 months ago
Reply to  Eddie Johnson

Eddie – you’re are barking at the moon. This is not the home of a reasoned debate but an echo chamber of a fixed set of views that no doubt you will run up against time and time again. Forget words such as evidence, science etc. The views here become as binary as those that many contributors may once have wished to overcome (you’d hope). Whilst the articles can be very good, the comments section is less so than a year ago (people leave, and yet that is what you pay for). So, with New Year afoot, time (for me too) to take an alternative view – with a new subscription (elsewhere).

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt B
Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt B

“This is not the home of a reasoned debate but an echo chamber of a fixed set of views that no doubt you will run up against time and time again.”
On some issues – usually BLT on a Harrington article – reasoned debate is certainly possible on here, but I’ve noticed that anything relating to Trump or Climate Change quickly degenerates into a pointless slanging match.
“So, with New Year afoot, time (for me too) to take an alternative view – with a new subscription (elsewhere).”
Indeed. Having just trudged through yet another barely coherent rant from Über-Misandrist Ms Bindel (“Rebel D*kes”), I’m inclined to follow you.
“Elsewhere” gladly, but where, Matt, where?

Last edited 7 months ago by Eddie Johnson