Bold, Brechtian Predictions for a Bronterockin New Year
You can spot a McKay from the first quirky, outsider, genius-in-headphones rapping/jamming their way through life and Don't Look Up is vintage McKay. The film opens with Jennifer Lawrence's red-mulleted, fingerless glove wearing, and soon to be doctoral astronomer, Kate Dibiaski rapping Wu Tang Clan's "Aint Nothing to F*** With," "Yo, there's no place to hide once I step inside the room; Dr. Doom, prepare for the boom! Bam! ...the survey said, 'You're dead!' Fatal Flying Guillotine chops off your fuckin' head!" Prepare for the boom, indeed.
McKay's tone here is hard to put a finger on, and that might be wholly appropriate. In his attempt to capture the frenzied, schizophrenic split between the hyper-realistic sense of collective urgency and importance so many of us seem to be feeling these days regarding, well, just about everything, and the increasingly infantilizing, fantastical escapism forever at our digital fingertips (despite that being the primary place for all of our hyper-realistic, urgent discourse, as well), he may have just about succeeded.
Bertolt Brecht comes to mind. Brecht felt that we should never forget that we are in the theatre, that we should never "get lost in the story." It should always be clear that the story isn't real, and that a point is - indeed - being made. He had no time for realism or subtlety and saw no problem with a highly didactic theatre. Some of McKay's characters are entirely believable, multidimensionally flush human beings (I actually felt Leo's work as nervous-neurotic doctoral astronomer Dr. Mindy to be as compelling as anything I've seen him do - saying something considering what a fan I am), while other characters are pure caricature with no recognizable indicators of any redemptive potential, namely Mrs. Streep and her cabinet of yes-men (and women) - an obvious nod to Mr. 45 and his cabinet, and then still others (a very few) who show very-momentary glimmers of humanity during the film's equally-momentary glimmers of something resembling hope.
Similarly, some aspects of his story are grounded in the same sort of cut-and-dried dramedic reality that other projects of his are, namely The Big Short and Succession, so succeeded in - a world that captures us at our idiocyncratic worst. Other moments of the film fly into the farcical landscape of his earlier stuff (The Other Guys, Talladega Knights). I found myself wondering, repeatedly, "what world is this story taking place in, exactly?" a question not unlike ones I've found myself asking quite often this past year.
The film can be taken as a metaphorical stand-in for any number of "scientific" issues we find ourselves divided over, climate change being McKay's principal aim, I suspect. The film can also, more simply, be taken as warning as to how we might respond if faced with even-more magnitudinous challenges than ones we're currently facing. Brecht seemed more inclined towards warnings than complaints (though the film expresses both) and later in the film McKay's most primary protagonist comes forward with the central message of the film, aimed directly down the barrel of a television camera lens and coming as close to breaking the fourth wall as anything in the film. McKay has shown no hesitation on projects past when it comes to breaking the fourth wall and saying what needs to be said. In both The Big Short and Vice he uses the technique effectively to advance concepts and background info that undergird the more-central action or logic of the plot. Here his near-break of the fourth wall is more in the vein of a Brechtian call to arms.
Structurally and thematically speaking, the important detail to note is that isn't actually Meryl Streep's Madam Presidential stand-in for Mr. forty-five who serves as the film's bad guy. The inimitable Mark Rylance truly walks in the shoes of the most far-fetched character of the bunch: painfully soft-spoken techno-entrepreneurial magnate Sir Peter Isherwell who serves, ultimately, as the financial incentivizer for humanity's undoing. His opening statement reveals his primary objective in life: to be soothed, comforted. A wolf in sheep's clothing if there ever was one. Jonathan Haidt would have a few things to say about the emotional safe spaces Isherwell seems desperate to blanket the world in.
Halfway through the film I was all but ready to turn the thing off. The film felt one-sidedly didactic, preachy, and more like a straw-man take down of right-wing politics and vacuous pop culture than it did a skillful, inventive piece of sociopolitical commentary in the mode of The Big Short. As the film progressed, however, I found myself more and more compelled by the slant on reality being served up here: part grounded and gritty real-world, part ever-so-slightly futuristic dystopia where daytime talk shows feel a few steps closer to the divided social sphere of The Hunger Games than they do our current world. Between casting, costume, lighting, and writing, the filmmakers create altogether different realities that the characters find themselves ensconced in, reminiscent of Tristan Harris' take on our current world in The Social Dilemma.
Interestingly, the film was written before the pandemic began and then, in McKay's own words, "reality out-crazied us." McKay also states that his intention was to write a film contradicting the comfortable endings most doomsday films have offered; more Dr. Strangelove, less Armageddon. Is this what happens when we aren't appropriately pessimistic? Not appropriately terrified of the kind of future we are paving the way (no pun intended) for? Not aptly aware of how glaringly deficient some of our interventions have been?
I come away from this film unsure as to whether I am as impressed by this as by anything McKay has done, previously, or if Don't Look Up was the lazy, comparatively banal and cliched sociopolitical commentary I felt it to be for the first half of the film. He has, certainly, imposed a style all his own - a style incorporating others he has already mastered, and found a way to bridge the gap between realism and absurdism in a way that both captures the moment and illuminates the lesson we might most need to extract, but I can't tell how purposefully Brechtian, how purposefully didactic McKay's crafting was, or whether - purposeful or not - it was actually effective.
Watch Don't Look Up. Come to feel out the layers of tone, style, and substance and make up your own mind, but stay - please, please stay - for the bronterocs.