Her speech could not have been less convincing to the demographic she seemed most desperate to reach.
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.
How counterintuitive it can sometimes seem, to win people over, science must remain apolitical.
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.