The metaphor may be a bit clunking but that does not minimise the relevance of “Don’t Look Up” for our times. The events of the last two years (I write as we are a few hours away from entering 2022) have shown (to coin a cliché) the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mankind. When historians come to review in perspective the Trump years, Britain’s preposterous rejection of Europe and adoption of raw nationalism and the deterioration of leadership in all too much of the western world this movie will be a good place to start.
“How did we let this happen” is the take out from the movie as we see how six months warning of global disaster was squandered in a maelstrom of political ineptitude. The all pervasive power of the media which placed a celebrity relationship ahead of the likely destruction of Earth in its chat shows schedule rings scarily true, as it is meant to. Science is held in lower esteem than an image obsessed pseudo guru (brilliantly played by Mark Rylance). The experts are denigrated or mocked, even by the President who is initially more worried about the mid terms.
It is about the COVID pandemic though, of course, not directly. But the comet bringing the planet’s destruction is the metaphor for the virus. As with the very real medical emergency we are living through (or dying from) the comet challenges science and politicians alike. In both cases the latter comprehensively fail the test. Meryl Streep’s President has the image driven vanity and arrogance that too many leaders both sides of the Atlantic have exhibited in recent times. The slogans of the movie, not least its title , are eerily reminiscent of the pandemic related slogans of today.
The film is also about Brexit though the latter was arguably more avoidable than the comet and marginally less deadly. Leaders lie to us in real life as well as here. “How will this play with the voters” is the explicit question. Show is far more important than competence and expertise. The President appoints an aging war hero to head up a mission to destroy the comet – hilarious echoes of Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove here ! A five star General charges visitors for free snacks in the West Wing.
Human frailties and inabilities to front up to threats, or to minimise them, are everywhere. Leonardo de Capprio plays the brilliant scientist who confirms the threat and he has a Peter Finch type screaming moment of epiphany when he cannot stand it any more. He’s seduced by the chat show host who boasts that she’s slept with two ex Presidents. A satire on the “we can do anything” imperative of the rich and famous. Shallow pseudo sensationalism which blows instantly away once the programme is off air.
The film is funny and quite daring, The satire is not subtle but then this is not a subtle story. We will probably say that such a threat as the destruction of the planet would surely he handled more skilfully in real life. But can we be sure ? “Don’t Look Up” ought to make us ask the question.