Looking Up From Don’t Look Up: Adam McKay and End Times

Don’t Look Up is the third movie in a row by the great feature filmmaker Adam McKay that condemns core elements of the predatory capitalist empire that largely owns and controls the world – and holds a death-grip on the fate of all species on the planet, not least the human species.

Released December 24, Don’t Look Up was originally intended as a climate collapse allegory that McKay conceived with the stalwart progressive journalist David Sirota, “a hard funny satire” and “a big broad comedy,” which became a sweeping multi-genre and genre-busting mix and meld work of art, in parts allegory, horror story, tragicomedy, film à clef, speculative fiction, drama, satire, romance, an apocalyptic farce of a yarn of cautionary tale by way of a massive comet impact on Earth, an “extinction level event.”

This cataclysm is analogous not only to climate collapse but to an apocalyptic pandemic or nuclear holocaust or any terminal disaster-in-progress. McKay’s esthetic and ethical – that is, artistic – build-up to Don’t Look Up was several decades in the making, including nearly two decades of highly popular feature filmmaking, mainly comedic and to varying degrees culturally critical and institutionally analytic. But it wasn’t until 2015 in The Big Short, followed by Vice (2018) and Don’t Look Up (2021), that McKay’s movies became rhetorically explicit, intellectually overt, by way of direct address, or near-direct address. McKay: “I want to make movies that are nakedly overt and find other ways to be clever and sly within them.” This approach, however historically vaunted, flies directly in the face of the one of main prohibitions of the establishment for fiction filmmaking and books – especially insofar as explicit topical art is progressive, let alone socialist, which McKay tends toward, calling himself a “democratic socialist.”

In 2015, McKay’s fictive feature film The Big Short eviscerated – sometimes in explicit essayistic detail, filmed in clever and lively fashion – the state-capitalist financiers and enablers who engineered the implosion of the financial and economic system. This breakdown and gigantic theft was the result of enormously profitable fraud, committed by the One Percent for the One Percent. The Big Short might as well have been titled Battlefield Wall Street: Death By Financial Dictatorship.

After not entirely but mostly neglecting in The Big Short President Barack Obama’s key role of facilitating the ongoing dictatorship of finance over much of the US government, society, and culture, McKay in his next movie, Vice (2018), eviscerated Dick Cheney for his function as a military-industrial complex grim reaper. Vice depicts Cheney consolidating the unaccountable, anti-democracy power of the US executive and leading the charge to military conquest. The result: the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in Iraq and Syria to the great profit of US corporations and finance. Vice might as well have been titled Battlefield Executive Office: Death By Fascist Dictatorship.

McKay’s third movie of this de facto trilogy, Don’t Look Up, condemns Big Culture (especially Big Tech and Big Media) and the predatory capitalist state that spearheads a profiteering, vicious and fictitious empire – all too real. Don’t Look Up shows an empire of lies and “pokes fun at the whole system” while, in McKay’s words, it “tries to ask a bigger question” about “our broken discourse, our broken mechanisms of communication” leading to the destruction of the world. “We’ve broken the lines of communication. We’ve profitized and twisted and bent the very ways in which we communicate with each other.” Basically every socio-cultural entity and most people caught within those entities lie, compromise, or otherwise fraudulently exploit one another for money, power, and control in the here and now, the future be damned. Don’t Look Up might as well have been titled Battlefield Big Culture: Death By Cultural Dictatorship.

Though immediately scoring well with some critics and huge audiences worldwide via its Netflix release, Don’t Look Up has been denigrated by many other critics who have dismissed and ripped the movie as unprofessional, incompetent, trivializing, and contemptuous-pompous-narcissistic-highly-self-regarding. The establishment ideology of these critics runs deep. These critics are not stupid or evil or fraudulent (one hopes). Instead, the reality “is way more depressing” – because so banal – in the words of the Jennifer Lawrence character who discovered the doomsday comet in Don’t Look Up. In her view, establishment authorities are “not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.” These critics are a part of the establishment mindset lanced in the movie. Their culture is in accord with the perspective of power that continuously brainwashes itself and everyone else as much as possible to deny the obvious when it conflicts with their interests. A bold and brash, thoughtful and moving, and consequential big feature film about the wholesale lethality of predatory capitalist culture can’t be felt or acknowledged to be good by critics who make their living off the dragon slayed resoundingly by McKay in Don’t Look Up.

These critics, typical of capitalist culture, are ideologically stunted in a way that would look familiar to George Orwell who wrote about the phenomena of idiocy and banditry among the privileged prior to the calamity of World War II, in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (1941): “The underlying fact was that the whole position of the monied class had long ceased to be justifiable… The British ruling class obviously could not admit to themselves that their usefulness was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate… Clearly there was only one escape for them – into stupidity.” [The ruling types could] “keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though this was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on round them.” And as a matter of course decrying liberatory and progressive let alone revolutionary change and activity in society and culture. Orwell wrote more about this establishment “orthodoxy” in his suppressed introduction to Animal Farm.

That was 80 years ago, though these observations by Orwell on the English establishment could pass for a view of the American establishment today, or state-capitalist establishments worldwide. Meanwhile, 80 years prior to Orwell’s comments, the great artist and political figure Victor Hugo in the early 1860s encountered similar resistance in his native France upon the publication of his great and politically rocking novel, Les Misérables. A couple decades ago, Graham Robb, Hugo’s tremendous biographer, noted that the establishment was determined to beat back “a work of serious fiction for the masses…one of the last universally accessible masterpieces of Western literature, and a disturbing sign that class barriers had been breached… The oxymoronic opinions of critics betray the unease created by Hugo – that the lower orders might also have their literature.” Such critics have been fighting the “bad taste” and alleged incompetence of the incomparable artist Hugo and other powerful progressive visionaries ever since. Don’t Look Up has been greeted and maltreated similarly today.

Graham Robb: “The ‘dangerous’ aspect of Les Misérables is almost as evident today as it was in 1862. If a single idea can be extracted from the whole, it is that persistent criminals are a product of the criminal justice system, a human and therefore a monstrous creation; that the burden of guilt lies with society and that the rational reform of institutions should take precedence over the punishment of individuals.” The social systems are monstrous: enslaving and profiteering, predatory and lethal, and must be reformed or abolished or the misery and the dying will continue and, per today, become total. In its own novel and powerful way, Don’t Look Up lays this out every bit as much as Les Misérables exposed society 160 years ago, and as Orwell also consciously attempted too, 80 years past. Whether or not Don’t Look Up will have the unusually potent social and political effects that Les Misérables created can only remain to be seen. This movie has already elevated socio-political and critical discourse, as written all over the internet within mere days of its release, and can be heard in corresponding conversations offline, far and wide.

It should be clear that in an analogous way to Les Misérables, McKay’s three most recent feature films are subversive and first-rate, and also like Les Misérables they have remarkably managed to be an ironic and exceptional part of the dominant culture. Both authors’ popular clout was established over the course of a lifetime – in McKay’s case through a decade of creating highly successful feature films: primarily spoofs and cultural critiques of white male media, sports, politics, and police (mildly reminiscent of another left-wing American filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin). McKay’s early hits include Anchorman (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), The Other Guys (2010) and Anchorman 2 (2013) among other notable movies.

McKay developed his comedy during the preceding years as well, including from subversive angles. “In one of the many politically charged skits he performed at Second City” in the early 1990s, Josh Rottenburg notes in the Los Angeles Times: “McKay played left-wing linguist Noam Chomsky as a substitute kindergarten teacher freaking out his students by telling them that Thanksgiving was all about the genocide of the Native Americans. McKay traces his strongly left-leaning political views to his childhood in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. ‘I had a single mom, and we grew up pretty poor,’ he explained. ‘In a way I’m a byproduct of L.B.J.’s Great Society. We were on food stamps. A couple of times my mom had to be on unemployment. I went to public schools that were actually really good. My mom then got a Pell Grant and went back to college. We could have fallen into poverty, but because of that support, my mom was able to get a better job and I was able to go to college. I got to see how that stuff really works’.”

Connor Kilpatrick writing for Jacobin in an article titled “Adam McKay Is Mad As Hell” reveals that McKay is a Bernie Sanders booster who considers himself to be a “democratic socialist” and has worked to create humor as an agent of change his entire adult life. Kilpatrick reports that McKay’s colleague Adam Davidson believes, “There’s a performance of authority that is absurd. And we, as a culture, are kind of recognizing that more and more. But Adam was very early to it.”

The fact is that the vast majority of authority in capitalist culture is fraudulent and cannot be justified. To believe or to pretend that it can be justified is a ludicrous, or venal, or lethal fiction. McKay’s popular art focuses on this and reveals it. This is a necessary and needed function of art and culture. And art, also culture, can do more. It can reveal and explore solutions and remedies for sociopathology, which may be the most challenging and vital kind of art that can be made. That said, often the most effective way to end social and political sociopathology is to first be able to fully see and understand it, so that you can ridicule, reject, and otherwise subvert oppressive and killer structures, where and when possible and effective.

That doesn’t necessitate dropping out entirely of oppressive systems – even if, when, and where possible. Case in point, whomever the progressives or Social Democrats run for the Presidency in 2024 during the upcoming debased electoral extravaganza, whether Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib … it would be good again to involve Adam McKay in such a campaign, including his art.

As I’ve written at length elsewhere, fiction is far more censored than nonfiction, because it is more powerful. Culturally critical fictions, whether in form of book or movie, are too dangerous to established interests, too powerful, more so than nonfiction because of their extra, esthetic appeals, and because fiction can contain nonfiction, in virtually every sense. So the ideological controls are tighter for fiction than nonfiction. Fiction is too useful, too popular, too influential not to be domineered and gutted in central ways by the status quo. At all levels of accomplishment, fiction exists and can be crafted to virtually any intention: reactionary, establishmentarian, revolutionary, etc, so it’s a battlefront that must be fought on. Stories “do far more than entertain…” reports Scientific American:

“…how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions? The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our history as a social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society.”

Establishment-minded critics come up with all sorts of reasons to ignore, disparage, or attack fictions that violate their ideology. There’s no conspiracy. They are cultured. Such culture is used, consciously or not, as a type of social self-medication and anesthetic for the masses. So much that is vital is missing in establishment fiction, and the privileged may not know but more typically know and don’t care, and work against knowing. The greatest irony is that they may even feel oppressed by liberatory fiction – esthetically, intellectually, in every way. Typical reactions to crossing often unspoken ideological lines are all over the map, and include contempt or incomprehension, with claims of wrong use of form or ineffective technique – in the face of ideologically challenging and uncomfortable content or presentation. This has been true in art since long before Orwell and Hugo and continues today with the recent works of Adam McKay, especially with his latest three movies, The Big ShortVice, and Don’t Look Up, his most overt socially critical works. The latter two movies were panned by many critics whereas The Big Short was widely embraced by audiences and critics both.

Why was The Big Short treated more favorably by critics? Curiously, that movie had the wealthiest “good guys,” who were fighting for fairness within a financial (and political) system that was mostly perceived within the movie to be hopelessly corrupt. The heroes of The Big Short were capitalists through and through, even while serving as an effective window for condemning much of the dangerous and exploitative system. No surprise then that this gave establishment-minded critics something endearing to them to applaud, privileged wealth operators, even as the fraudulent and wrecking engine of capitalism was ridiculed and deplored by the movie – a popular and accurate dramatization appreciated by others.

Will it be possible for Adam McKay to make anything other than cataclysmic films from now on? For sanity’s sake surely though this era remains apocalyptic far beyond anything Hugo and Orwell knew such a short time ago. The Anthropocene is already lethally far advanced. The Nuclear Age could end life, quick and grotesque. Various biological catastrophes could wipe out everything and everyone. The Earth could benefit from a flood of great socially-engaged, revolutionary, global books and movies, a big bad bath of cultural renewal, full of panacea-type works of art. Much of the world seems ripe and long overdue for huge and real advances. “Criticism like charity begins at home,” notes Nobel Prize winning author Wole Soyinka, and by now surely home must be considered planet Earth itself. Expectations could not be higher for A24’s impending movie based on Parable of the Sower (1993), Octavia Butler’s great novel, and the time is also long overdue to make a revolutionary movie based on Wizard of the Crow (2006), Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s booming novel of the people which is much more a story of global proportions than critics tend to recognize.

Dystopia is a policy choice. Also a producer’s choice. And an artist’s choice. So are panaceas. It would be good to see in culturally critical films more welling and popular progressives and socialists in ideology or even simply in action, individuals and groups, including those who have long been leading and bleeding for human rights and survival everywhere – people and groups that are otherwise cut from dominant culture whenever possible. It would be good for there to be more inclusion of the despised rabble, “the wretched” or the wretched “scum” as Robb notes would be the contemporary translation of les misérables. “‘We felt that simply by reading [Hugo’s] works, we were contributing to some silent victory over tyranny,’ remembered Émile Zola.” Dostoevsky called Les Misérables “that great book.” Tolstoy considered Les Misérables to be the greatest novel ever, which it arguably remains.

Blasting a cruel, pernicious, and violent official culture, Hugo’s novel swept through the world rapidly upon publication. Soldiers in the lines on both sides of the gruesome US civil war read it with equal avidity. Nina Martyris writes in The Paris Review, “The critics and literati panned it brutally … sneer[ing] that reading the novel was akin to ‘wading through mud.’ Gustave Flaubert privately mocked it as a ‘book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack.’ But the people absolutely loved it. [Sales of the book reached] … such a fever pitch that shoppers in Paris arrived with handcarts and wheelbarrows to whisk away as many copies as possible. A peeved Flaubert delayed publishing Salammbô by six months: the catholico-socialist shithead novel was monopolizing sales… [The novel was] “a moral and commercial juggernaut.” Given such popularity, retrenching proceeded in literary, social, and political realms. As Hugo notes, “‘The newspapers which support the old world say, “It’s hideous, infamous, odious, execrable, abominable, grotesque, repulsive, shapeless, monstrous, horrendous, etc.” Democratic and friendly papers answer, “No, it’s not bad.”‘” And so it is with Don’t Look Up today.

Graham Robb further details the telling effects of the publication of Les Misérables: “Mme Hugo, who was in Paris giving interviews, tried to persuade Hugo’s spineless allies to support the book and invited them to dinner; but Gautier had flu, Janin had ‘an attack of gout’, and George Sand excused herself on the grounds that she always over-ate when she was invited out… Perrot de Chezelles [a public prosecutor], in an ‘Examination of Les Misérables‘, defended the excellence of a State which persecuted convicts even after their release, and derided the notion that poverty and ignorance had anything to do with crime…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo [in exile] … had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862 – as he had set out to do, in many ways.

Movies like Don’t Look Up and other powerful, popular, and incisive liberatory works of art cannot help but impact society and culture to constructive effect.

In The Liberation of American Literature (1932), one of the central buried texts of liberatory lit criticism in the US, VF Calverton writes of the establishment: “That the attempt to be above the battle is evidence of a defense mechanism can scarcely be doubted. Only those who belong to the ruling class, in other words, only those who had already won the battle and acquired the spoils, could afford to be above the battle. Fiction which was propagandistic, that is, fiction which continued to participate in the battle, it naturally cultivated a distaste for, and eschewed. Fiction which was above the battle, that is fiction which concerned only the so-called absolutes and eternals, with the ultimate emotions and the perennial tragedies, but which offered no solutions, no panaceas – it was such fiction that won its adoration…. Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another… the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.”

VF Calverton, the now virtually unknown editor of the Modern Quarterly (for 17 years from 1923 until his death in 1940), one of the country’s most vital yet most disregarded and disappeared critics, has been long since buried by the literary, political, and economic establishments. Calverton is emblematic of an entire line of liberatory literary and political thought brainwashed, demonetized, and otherwise forced nearly out of existence over the course of the twentieth century and beyond. Suicidal and homicidal ideology in art, culture, and society, politics, and economics increasingly gained power and led the world to the cataclysmic point it finds itself at today, the world shredded in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. Mouthing the ideology of the zombie One Percent still ruling today, critics of this old world trash McKay’s ambitious, momentous, moving, illuminating, and culturally effective movie as inadequate and off-putting, while much of the populace appreciates the damned thing and the power it entails and delivers. Popular movies and art like Don’t Look Up aid the necessary urgent moves forward that we all need to make as individuals, communities, and nations, for the sake of ourselves and the dying planet.