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Don’t Look Up – How a discussion about the need for political debate started to close down debate

I hate to prolong the discussion about the film Don’t Look Up. I have rarely experienced a dispute which has involved so many people refusing to engage with what anyone else is actually saying, Fortunately, for me, this has largely gone on while I was travelling and with very little Internet access, but what I have seen has been more vehement, more personal, than anything I remember.

In the past few months I’ve seen other online discussions about Reds, about Cabaret, about the new Spiderman film. In each case, people had widely differing opinions, and imho some of the arguments employed just didn’t hold up. But there was none of the fundamentalism that we’ve seen in the current debate, the feeling that if you take the ‘wrong line’, you have somehow failed as a person.

One tiny part of this discussion has been about a review I wrote a month ago for my film blog. This was before Don’t Look Up had been released on Netflix, before the Big Dispute, so I didn’t anticipate that it would be particularly controversial. It was one of over 450 reviews that I’ve written and published in the last 3 years. It was primarily written for myself and the few people who read my blog.

Briefly put, my argument was (and is) that while Don’t Look Up does attack the right targets, it came across to me as blaming poor people for sitting back and letting all this happen. A key scene involves a right wing rally where the super rich and working class people sneer at middle class do gooders. I believe that this attitude is shared in part by the film, which rarely features working class people elsewhere. Others disagree. It is a legitimate debate – or at least it would be, if anyone were prepared to discuss it.

Instead, the general reaction to my review – written before most people had seen the film, remember – was denunciation. I have seen 2 separate Facebook posts which don’t directly mention my review or me, but they quoted it so closely that I’m starting to get a bit paranoid.

On more than one occasion, people who don’t bow down to Don’t Look Up’s innate wonderfulness have been called stupid, or not able to understand the film’s subtleties. Even worse, they’ve been called thoughtless supporters of the “Guardian line” (more of this below). And while my review has been cited, sometimes directly, more often indirectly, almost no-one has engaged with anything that I actually said. There are exceptions, but it is becoming very frustrating.

On the other side of the fence, a number of other people have shared and praised my review which is very nice, but I’m a bit bemused that you’ve all chosen to respond to this particular review. Why aren’t you engaging with what I said about Annette, for example, which I think is a far more interesting film?

Anyway, in a little burst of New Year self-indulgence, here’s a little Q&A about what I actually said.

Q: Is Don’t Look Up any good?

A: Yes it is. As I said in my review, it’s well-written and well-acted. It takes on a subject of contemporary relevance and attacks the rich and powerful. While this is not of itself a criterion for a film’s quality, it is surely an added bonus.

I only mention this, because the way the discussion has been going lately, it feels increasingly that you’re not allowed to enjoy the film and still find it to be deeply flawed. You’re either with us or agin us apparently.

Q: Should we respond to the film politically or artistically?

A: Both. In fact a film’s politics can be one determining factor (among others) which affects how well it works artistically. It is difficult to watch Triumph of the Will without thinking of the horrors of the Holocaust. The same goes, for quite different reasons, for Life is Beautiful, which doesn’t work artistically precisely because of its offensive politics.

Part of judging a film artistically involves looking at what it is trying to say and how effective it is at saying it. Some of this is, of necessity, political. There is no art for art’s sake.

Q: Is mentioning the level of working class agency in a film relevant to a review?

A: There are two answers to this question. First, it depends on which film you’re talking about. A review of – to pick a film at random 😏- Labyrinth, obviously would look a little mad if it started banging on about class consciousness. But Don’t Look Up is not a comedy starring David Bowie and various Muppets. It is a satire which has been co-written by Bernie Sanders’s senior writer. This is an interventionist film which is trying to make a political point. This means that it raises political questions (including ones about agency).

Secondly, of course it would be wrong to decide the worth of a film purely based on its politics. Let’s take the example of On the Waterfront. It is a brilliant film, which was written to excuse director Elia Kazan testifying before the McCarthy commission. The plot effectively endorses scabbing. Knowing these things help us to understand how the plot relates to the social conditions which produced it, but it doesn’t make On the Waterfront a terrible film – far from it.

To take a more recent example: Steven Spielberg recently made a surprizingly good remake of West Side Story. People should definitely go and see it. But the remake has a serious race problem. It foregrounds (and apparently sympathises with) the white gang, which is full of actual racists, over the Puerto Ricans who are defending themselves and their community against racism. Such a comment does not negate any of the positive contributions that Spielberg has brought to the film.

Q: Doesn’t the Guardian’s opposition to the film prove that anyone who attacks it is a reactionary liberal?

A: This is a very strange opinion that I have seen expressed more than once. If the Guardian’s football correspondent predicts that Liverpool will win the derby, does it mean that, having successfully dispatched Jeremy Corbyn, the Guardian editorial board has now decided that its next target will be Everton?

The Guardian film reviewers, like its sports reporters, are generally not chosen for their political views. One of the main film writers for the Guardian media group is Mark Kermode, former member of the Revolutionary Communist Group (aka Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism). Now while his views have softened over the years, he is hardly spearheading a charge against the red menace.

The truth is that many people – left, liberal and right-wing – have been disappointed by Don’t Look Up. Many, with just as wide a range of political opinions, have said that it’s brilliant. Although the first couple of Guardian reports were hostile, the paper has since posted more positive articles. This does not mean that the film has suddenly become liberal mush.

Q: Wasn’t Meryl Street great as Hillary Clinton?

A: A couple (but not all) of the gushing reviews of Don’t Look Up also seem to think that Meryl Streep is parodying Hillary Clinton. She really isn’t, and a quick perusal at Streep’s pro-Hillary statements in recent years will show you that she’d be unlikely to take on that sort of role.

In the film, the Democrats are the dog that doesn’t bark. They are simply not present to oppose what is going on – not the right wing, but also not the left wing. Reminder: this film has been written by Bernie’s former script writer.

Streep is clearly playing a Trump equivalent, whose ascent to power has everything to do with media manipulation, and nothing to do with inadequate opposition. This analysis of Trump is a point of view. It’s just not my point of view.

Q: Isn’t it great that a film like this is being watched and discussed by so many people?

A: If by “a film like this”, you mean a film that talks about the climate crisis, and then goes on to point the finger at the super-rich, then of course. The fact that so many people are interested is testament to the fact that a massive number of people are interested in saving the planet (something which isn’t evident in the film, by the way, but let’s let that pass for a moment).

Don’t Look Up is advancing the debate simply by existing, but I think people are overestimating the content of what it is saying. I would argue that the main problem with the environmental movement at the moment is not that most people don’t think that climate change isn’t real – it is a feeling that this problem is so immense that we don’t know what we can do. I’m not sure that Don’t Look Up’s nihilism does much to advance this discussion.

Having said that, I think that its worth acknowledging a comment made by my friend Dave after I posted the original version of this article on facebook. Dave and I disagree on a number of points about the film, but I find this comment of his to be very perceptive:

“while climate denial per se isn’t what it used to be, I do think there is a sense of resolute climate-ignoring in society’s response to it, which causes a cognitive dissonance that many many people find horribly troubling. This is often talked about in articles about climate anxiety etc, but this film gives it a clearer voice and channels into anger at big business, politicians and the media instead of introspection. So I think yeah ok it’s left liberal but its politics are more relevant – or at very least more ambiguous – than you give credit for.”

Q: Should we be telling all our friends to go and see the film?

A: To a degree, it depends on your relationship with your friend. I have friends with whom I don’t talk about politics. I have those who rarely go to the cinema, and when they do they want distraction from their exhausting lives. There are other films that I’d recommend much more to such people.

However, Don’t Look Up has started – and been provoked by – an important social debate. It is good to be part of that debate. This is why I went to see Black Panther, even though I was fairly sure I would hate it on both a political and artistic level (I did). But I couldn’t be part of the hugely political debate that followed its release without having seen the bloody film.

What bemuses me about some of the reactions to Don’t Look Up is that they celebrate the fact that the film has opened up a debate, then have nothing more to say about its message than “this is a good film”. I would prefer to discuss the key issues rather than standing on the sidelines cheerleading.

Let’s take two recent documentaries: I am Greta and Aufschrei der Jugend – films about Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future Berlin. As it happens, I preferred both these films to Don’t Look Up – others didn’t, that’s taste for you. But while both films came out of maybe our generation’s most important social movement and are clearly on the right side, they left many important questions unanswered. To what extent can Greta act on behalf of a movement? What do you do when you’ve been demonstrating every week for over 2 years and no-one seems to be listening?

Engaging with the films means addressing questions like these. To be honest, I find this slightly more important than whether or not you actually enjoyed the film. The insinuation that people who are criticizing Don’t Look Up are not engaging with what it is saying is slightly crazy. Rather than indulging in an abstract row about whether the film is Any Good, let’s talk concretely about how we can use the political gap that it has opened.

Q: But what do you think about the film?

A: By and large I stand by what I said in my original review. Anyone who would like to actually engage with what I said is more than welcome.

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