“Don’t Look Up” review

Billionaire CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) and President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) concoct a ludicrous plot to cash in on a comet that’s about to destroy the earth.

Adam McKay and David Sirota’s Don’t Look Up, about a planet-killing comet on a rapid crash course with Earth and an America that is too distracted to do anything about it, is an allegory for our inaction on climate change. As a satire of government corruption, billionaire egomania, and celebrity culture, it is effective. And while the message is critical, the focus on parody sometimes comes at the expense of fleshing out the characters.

When the film starts, the Mt. Everest-sized comet — discovered by Ph.D. student Kate Dibiaski (Jennifer Lawrence) — is about six months away from colliding with Earth. Dibiaski and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), declare the comet a planet killer and set out on an urgent campaign to convince the US government to take action. Instead, the image-obsessed President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) downplays the comet and the media drops the story when their viewers don’t engage with it.

Both the writers and the characters in the movie passionately want to change people’s minds, and in a case of life imitating art, both have struggled to get through. Reviews in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and Variety have accused the film of smugly complaining about how dumb everyone else is. It does, occasionally, feel like the targets are low-hanging fruit: empty-headed Zoomers on their cell phones and rubes in red hats at political rallies. Don’t Look Up could have spent a little more time trying to understand why people fall for charlatans like President Orlean.

On the other hand, how delicately must we treat climate change deniers? We are living the reality of climate change now, with 80-degree winters, statewide fires, flooding in our subways, record-breaking heatwaves and hurricanes, deep freezes across Texas, and five-state tornadoes. Like the movie characters who adopt “Don’t look up” as a political slogan — by this point in the film, the comet is visible to the naked eye — millions of Americans look the other way while big business and politicians get rich off our planet’s destruction.

Don’t Look Up isn’t at its best when going after those easy targets, though. Its best satire is of the powerful, including President Orlean, her moronic Chief of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill), vacuous talk show host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), and tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance). Far from being elitist, the movie is, in fact, brimming with such contempt for elites that it’s a wonder it got funded. It is unforgiving, painting these people — and their real-world counterparts in media and politics — as irredeemable.

Isherwell is perhaps the best-realized of them all. The world’s third-richest man and a megadonor of President Orlean, he strides in and out of the Oval Office and the Situation Room with full security clearance, calls the president by her first name, and singlehandedly aborts a military mission to destroy the comet when he learns he can mine it for minerals to use in his electronic devices. His delusional messiah complex mirrors Elon Musk while his creepy data harvesting satirizes Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s not far off from the real thing in either case.

The movie only really shows America’s response to the planet-wide disaster. Perhaps this was intentional, to highlight America’s general lack of cooperativeness on global issues, but the absence of other scientifically advanced nations, which don’t suffer from the same capitalist corruptions that we do, is sometimes glaring. Only one joint Russian-Chinese venture is briefly shown to have failed.

Smartly, the writers don’t talk about political parties. President Orlean is clearly a Trumpian figure, obsessed with her image, sexually promiscuous, and giving high-ranking positions to her dotard child. But it’s never clearly stated which party she, or any of the other characters, belong to. Co-writer Sirota was a senior advisor to Bernie Sanders and has covered both Democratic and Republican corruption as a journalist, and the indictment this movie makes is of our entire system, not one party or another.

Unfortunately, the human lives the movie traces are not given as much attention as the commentary. Don’t Look Up is more about systems than characters. The characters are largely stand-ins for a point of view. When Dr. Mindy gets caught up in his fame and cheats on his wife with the more glamorous Brie Evantee, it’s hard to care, because his family life has been given so little screen time. The relationship between Jason and Janie Orlean is funny, but only really exists as a satire of elite nepotism.

Kate Dibiasky is the most relatable and best-developed character. Her fear of dying and desperate pleas to the population get her labeled insane, but they are the only truly sane reactions. Her relationship with the Christian punk Yule (Timothée Chalamet) is likewise the sweetest and most fleshed-out in the movie, and he becomes an important emotional core for the third act. We also meet Dibiaski’s comet-denying parents, but only briefly, and it’s a missed opportunity for something more substantial.

One of the movie’s problems, and a problem faced by all satirists, is that the real world is almost too crazy to exaggerate. For instance, the news show the scientists take their case to, The Daily Rip, isn’t so much a parody of shows like Morning Joe as it is a one-to-one recreation of them. Either because it’s too real or the jokes are too easy, there are only a few laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s nothing too eye-rolling, either. Like Dibiasky says, “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.”

And in that context, Don’t Look Up is a much bigger success. It’s as matter-of-fact as can be about the reality that our lives and the future of our planet are in the hands of dumb, narcissistic, immoral, shortsighted, greedy people who would rather watch humanity go extinct than admit they were wrong or suffer any hit to their bank accounts or poll numbers. They are the most entertaining characters in the film, the worst people in the world, and the most realistically portrayed.

Ultimately, Don’t Look Up is effective because it’s real. We are living out the scenario right now, only instead of “Don’t look up,” it’s “Drill here, drill now.” A montage late in the movie shows what’s at stake: everything from bumblebees to human babies, from family dinners to entire cultures. It might be sentimental in parts, but we must mourn the loss, whether from a comet, climate change, COVID-19, or whatever other disaster our twisted system tries to capitalize on at the expense of human life.

Don’t Look Up doesn’t have to exaggerate. It’s a climate change allegory, but the movie is also about the fundamental dysfunction at the core of American society. It serves more as a document of our times than a call to action, but no other big-budget movie shows just how far off-course we’ve gone. We’re not a completely lost cause. But if we continue to be led by the President Orleans and Peter Isherwells of the world, they will never allow us a way out. That’s the real lesson of the movie: it’s all up to us, because they don’t care enough to even try.

Corruption and carnage: Why Biden is right to withdraw from Afghanistan

America’s longest war, the war in Afghanistan, is coming to an end. President Joe Biden announced that US troops would fully withdraw by August 31, almost 20 years after President George W. Bush invaded. After Biden’s announcement, the Taliban rapidly seized control of nearly every major institution and facility in the country. In the weeks since, the world has witnessed chaos unfold, particularly at the airport in Kabul as at-risk citizens, officials, and diplomats attempt to escape the incoming Taliban regime.

Democrats, Republicans, and corporate media have all criticized Biden for causing the crisis. Senator Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal, “An unmitigated disaster, a stain on the reputation of the United States of America… the defeat of the United States military by a terrorist organization in Afghanistan.” Former President Trump claimed that Biden, “Dropped to his knees and he said, ‘Come on in and take everything that we have.’” Biden’s approval rating has hit its lowest point yet.

To his credit, Biden has held to his convictions. Far from an act of surrender, Biden’s commitment to withdrawing the US from Afghanistan has demonstrated courage. He has defied every powerful political force in this country, from congressmen to corporate media to the military-industrial complex.

A graceful exit from Afghanistan was never realistic. The war was justified to begin with on the pretext that we had to find the terrorists responsible for bringing down the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But those terrorists were not, as the Bush Administration often implied, one and the same with the Afghanistan government. When Bush declared his War on Terror, he essentially announced his intention to wage war against any nation if any terrorists might be there.

Since then, US foreign policy officials have muddled the war with a swirl of disinformation. Bush even turned down an offer, with certain conditions, from the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, ostensibly the whole point of the war. Officials convinced 70 percent of the American public that Iraq President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were linked, despite no such link existing. Justifications for the war mutated, new lies came and went from the headlines, and eventually, the war became background noise in America.

The human and material costs, however, were catastrophic. The war has now spanned multiple generations. At a cost of more than $2.4 trillion, some 2,400 US servicemen have died, along with more than 230,000 Afghans, including at least 70,000 civilians. Our bombs shattered their country and despite our supposed reconstruction efforts, 70 percent of Afghans currently have no clean water, 65 percent have no electricity, and 47 percent live below the poverty line. Opium production, however, has skyrocketed, in tandem with America’s opiate crisis.

Now, our best justification for the war has shifted to women’s rights. Women in Afghanistan do face significant repression from the incoming Taliban regime. But similar repression has never prompted us to declare war on ally states like Saudi Arabia. Biden is right when he says, “The idea that we’re able to deal with the rights of women around the world by military force is not rational… The way to deal with that is putting economic, diplomatic, and… international pressure on them to change their behavior.”

The only real justification is in the pocketbooks of US defense contractors. Since 2001, the stock value of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics have soared an average of 872 percent. Profits and earnings have soared, too. In 2001, the Pentagon budgeted $140 billion for military contractors. By 2019, that had increased to $370 billion. And the officially reported figures are almost certainly not accurate. The Pentagon reportedly mismanaged, shuffled, or lost some $35 trillion — with a ‘t’ — in 2019 alone.

So enormous is the scale of criminality and corruption that it’s difficult to fully grasp. Corporate media coverage of US foreign policy ranges from incomplete to purposely misleading. The experts who appear on network news are almost always current or former military officials, members of military think tanks, or representatives of defense contractors. If there is such a thing as the “deep state,” it is the network of intelligence and news agencies who keep the United States locked in perpetual war.

Mainstream coverage of the withdrawal has been almost universally negative. Polls are designed to skew public opinion against withdrawal. NBC warned that Afghanistan’s economy would collapse, as if it wasn’t already in ruins. CNN lamented the loss of “$1 trillion worth of minerals” when the Taliban takes over, as if it’s ours by right. One journalist at a press conference asked about the danger to our national security interests if we abandon the border of Tajikistan.

The presuppositions in all of this are that the US is righteous and noble and everything our military does makes the world a better place. The reality is far different. McConnell called the Taliban a terrorist organization, but the US military helped create them by arming, training, and funding extremists against the Soviets. Trump accused Biden of surrendering “everything that we have” in Afghanistan without asking why we have anything in Afghanistan, 7,000 miles away and across an ocean, in the first place.

The Taliban have one huge advantage over the US military in Afghanistan: they live there. Afghans are the only ones with any right to determine their own political future. If we hadn’t destroyed so much, perhaps a resistance to the Taliban could have formed. We can find ways to support that kind of growth without occupying the country. In 20 years, we’ve lost trillions of dollars, destroyed infrastructure, and ended hundreds of thousands of lives. Our presence hasn’t helped. We’ve done enough damage. Withdrawal isn’t defeat. It’s stopping ourselves from digging deeper.

Much about the US pullout from Afghanistan was rocky. People got hurt and killed, but that happened all war long. In the meantime, we have successfully evacuated more than 82,000 people. Those complaining about withdrawal the loudest are those who would have us remain in Afghanistan forever, who want the US military to cover the globe and fret about abandoning the border of Tajikistan. Of course they are going to portray the pullout as a disaster and goad Biden into staying. They love war.

Scenes of violence in Kabul are heartbreaking, but they are not the fault of Joe Biden. They are the inevitable consequence of Bush’s initial decision to invade in 2001 and the next two administrations deciding to stay. Strife and chaos are all that can result when a land is engulfed in war for decades. Our withdrawal is a step in the right direction for us and for Afghanistan, leaving the nation in their hands whether they ultimately form a government we like or not.

A view of the restraint of President Trump

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President Trump has held firm to his position of unilaterally holding the federal government hostage for his border wall, much to the delight of his base.

The presidency of tabloid star, game show host, and brand entrepreneur Donald J. Trump has been a rowdy one. Currently, the federal government of the United States is, like so many of Trump’s former ventures, shut down. As Trump threatens to declare a national emergency and circumvent Congress in order to build his promised southern border wall, commentators are speculating just how far Trump will go to undermine American institutions and empower himself.

Throughout his many decades of public life, Trump has been openly petty, vulgar, racist, conspiratorial, and narcissistic. The presidency hasn’t matured him an iota. As president, he’s continued to lie, flirt with dictators, enrich himself and his family, and show no compunction about stripping away benefits and even disaster relief from vulnerable people. Given how brazenly he’s gotten away with it all, though, it’s almost a marvel that he hasn’t gone even further. Continue reading

With Saudi defense, Trump’s love of tyrants reaches dismal new low

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Trump stands with the infamous orb in Saudi Arabia on his first trip overseas as president in 2017.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive, corrupt, and militaristic countries on earth. It is also a major ally of the United States, and current US President Donald Trump is a particularly big fan. Now that the Saudi government is believed to have murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, likely on orders from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pressure is mounting on Trump to stand up for journalists and free speech. Instead, he’s standing up for Saudi Arabia. Continue reading

Trump Administration dehumanizes victims to justify border atrocities

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After being separated from their parents at the border, the children of migrants are held in chain-link pens at military bases and prisons around the southern border.

By far the biggest story in national headlines this week was the Trump Administration’s policy of splitting up families crossing the southern border without authorization. Following a zero-tolerance policy enacted in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, detained parents have been sent to one facility and their children have been sent to another. Photos and videos of those children – confused, crying, and locked in cages – drew intense domestic and international condemnation. United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said, “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.” Continue reading

Donald Trump and the right-wing presumption of innocence

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Right-wing media is universally friendly to Trump, taking his innocence for granted and echoing his conspiracy theories about the investigation into his shady world.

President Donald Trump has escalated his attacks on the special counsel investigating his campaign’s alleged ties to Russian election interference. Last week Trump unleashed a torrent of tweets in an attempt to undermine the investigation’s credibility. Even as a deluge of shady new information about Trump associates pours in daily, from his personal attorney to his own children and son-in-law, conservative talking heads have dug in their heels behind the president more defiantly than ever. Continue reading

Right-wing snowflakes outraged over Michelle Wolf’s anti-elitist standup routine

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Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents Dinner, mere feet away from the targets of some of her most brutal jokes.

Comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a risqué performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday and became a hot topic overnight. The annual dinner, which is typically a stuffy affair, brings together Democratic and Republican politicians and media personalities for a night of awkward, elitist camaraderie. Wolf’s performance, laced with explicit references to President Trump’s scandals and sexual history, earned the ire of the far-right – a rich irony, given that group’s crusade against political correctness. Continue reading

The case for nationalizing the internet

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Activists project “Property of Verizon” on the face of the FCC building in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will vote on whether or not it wants to repeal net neutrality, an Obama-era regulation that requires internet service providers to treat all content on the internet indiscriminately. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon who joked about being the company’s puppet, argues that repeal of net neutrality is in better keeping with free market principles. Almost everyone else says repealing net neutrality is nothing more than a corporate power grab. Continue reading

Why Roy Moore is the biggest political story of the moment

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Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, left, shakes the hand of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Arguably the most important political story happening right now is the ongoing scandal involving Roy Moore. Once the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Moore was removed for his lawlessness. Despite this, voters in Alabama – following a relentless campaign by the far-right website Breitbart – made Moore the Republican nominee to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate. Moore’s virulently homophobic, theocratic ideology already made him controversial to his own party, but last week’s allegations that he preyed on teenage girls made Moore look truly vulnerable. Continue reading

Roy Moore and the stunning cognitive dissonance of Breitbart

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Christian fascist Roy Moore defended himself by telling family values conservative Sean Hannity he did “not generally” date 16- and 17-year-old girls when he was in his 30s.

Anyone who logged into Breitbart over the last couple days saw the site’s usual sensationalist, large-font headlines, but they may have sounded disjointed if read all together. On one side, a vocal defense of Republican senate candidate Roy Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice who has been accused by four girls of pursuing inappropriate, underage relationships with them. On the other side, a string of enthusiastic articles about the takedown of liberal Hollywood by sexual harassment and assault allegations.

One headline, “Judge Roy Moore on Hannity Radio: ‘Allegations Completely False,’” appeared next to the headline, “#OscarSoRapey: Harassers, Enablers Prepare to Celebrate Themselves for Five-Month Awards Season.” Another headline quoted Steve Bannon: “‘Same Bezos-Amazon-Washington Post’ Dropped Trump Tape, Roy Moore Hit Pieces… ‘Purely Part of the Apparatus of the Democratic Party’.” next to that article was one about a man who was allegedly beaten by immigrants in Germany after aiding an underage girl – precisely the type of girl Moore is accused of preying on. Continue reading