‘Don’t Look Up’ makes a critical mistake

Terrified and scared of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, Streep gathered his audience of Hollywood A-lists, filmmakers and the foreign press, tells them that they belonged to “the most reviled segments of American society right now,” but if thrown out, the public would have “nothing to look at but football and mixed martial arts, which are not art.”

Her speech could not have been less convincing to the demographic she seemed most desperate to reach.

Many Americans who voted for Trump in 2016 did so because they felt forgotten of the political and social establishment, and believed that their way of life was under threat. It is unlikely that their driving motives included ensuring that celebrities continued to be paid millions of dollars to play makeup. Surrounded by peers who shared her own priorities, Streep’s message only underscored an existing divide.

Nearly five years after that speech, “Don’t Look Up,” Netflix’s star-studded disaster satire with Streep, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, spends over two hours making the same mistake. In its efforts to defend its cause, the film alienates only those who most need to be moved by its message.

The film’s hard-hitting premise is that a huge comet is on a collision course towards Earth, but the corrupt, self-absorbed president (played by Streep) and the evil media choose to ignore the danger because they think they might be able to serve on it.

It is a metaphor for climate change, which by its very nature should be sympathetic. Unfortunately, there has never been a more hostile environment to use it in.

As “Don’t Look Up” would have it, the biggest problem the world faces is that the gullible public and greedy elites keep refusing to listen to the wise scientists.

In the latest context with vaccine misinformation and billionaires who make vanity trips to space, it’s a tempting position. The problem is that when science is politicized — whether it is those who oppose it or those who deny it — objective truth ceases to exercise persuasive power.

How counterintuitive it can sometimes seem, to win people over, science must remain apolitical.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists with an important message in the film "Do not Look Up."
Take Anthony Fauci, America’s long-suffering expert in infectious diseases. Fauci made great efforts to stay politically neutral while serving under Trump because he knew that apparent bias would only serve to alienate many of the people who desperately needed to listen to his advice.
Like Greta Thunberg, who until it 2020 US elections relentlessly focused on climate action without getting into the dung between left to right, Fauci understands that any political association only serves as one distraction from the task.
When Fauci’s words were taken out of context in a GOP ad in mid-October 2020, he was quick to distance themselves. As Fauci’s recommendations for combating coronavirus – such as wearing a mask – continued to conflict with Trump’s interests, Trump changed tactics and began to discredit both Fauci and the science he represented. How did he do that? He claimed that Fauci – who is not registered in any political party – was one democrat.
This political division was reflected in public acceptance (or lack thereof) of science. By the end of October 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, Democrats accounted for for 76% of those who expressed concern that others do not wear masks, while Republicans made up 92% of those who expressed skepticism or opposition to masks.
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Nearly a year later, Americans who relied mainly on Trump for their Covid-19 information were among the least likely to be vaccinated. Far from winning people over to evidence-based measures, Fauci’s Trump-imposed affiliation with Democrats only served to make him a lightning rod for Republican anger.

Science is objective – “mathematics”, as “Don’t Look Up” constantly puts it, either puts it up or does not. But as soon as the scientific truth is inherently connected with one political creed, people who have conflicting political sympathies will be inclined to distrust it.

As well-meaning as the writers and cast of “Don’t Look Up” undoubtedly are, the goal of defending scientific facts must be separated from the goal of asserting moral superiority. The constant implication that those who hesitate to accept new evidence – be it the safety of vaccines or the influence of the comet – are stupid, corrupt and come from the “wrong” side politically only adds another obstacle to science to overcome.

Towards the end of the film, as one of the distinctly Trump rallies held by Streep’s character falls into chaos, Jonah Hill – who plays Streep’s son and chief of staff – shouts “rednecks” over his shoulder as he flees. The intended message – that the “bad” politicians who try to deceive the public have nothing but contempt for them – is tarnished by the fact that the “good” guys who made the film do not seem to think much about them either . .

The proponents of science must always try to leave politics at the door. Otherwise, the task is not just to convince people that the comet is coming, the planet is rapidly overheating, or that the vaccine will protect them. It also forces large sections of the population to accept that a cornerstone of their personal ideology is wrong.

And when the comet is so close, there just is no time for it.


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