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The real story of “Don’t Look Up”

Co-writer (and Academy Award nominee) David Sirota on what the movie is really about.

Two actors playing politicians and two actors playing scientists walk down a hallway in the White House.
Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up.

Is our society too ridiculous to solve its problems? That is the question at the center of Don’t Look Up, the Netflix hit and now Academy Award nominee.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie is about a pair of astronomers who discover a planet-killing comet barreling toward Earth. When they try to warn the world, they quickly realize that no one cares. The government is consumed by petty short-term ambitions, the media by trivialities, and the population by entertainment and tribalism.

By almost any measure, the movie has been a massive success. It’s the second-biggest movie in the history of Netflix and it just earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The critical responses to the film have been more mixed. Some thought it was too dark and fatalistic, some thought it was too preachy, and some thought it just missed the mark.

I haven’t stopped thinking about the movie since I saw it a month ago. The satire may be a bit broad and heavy-handed at moments, but there’s a critique here that leaves an imprint. It’s not that Americans are too dumb to solve climate change or any other existential crisis, a la Idiocracy. Rather, the movie is a lacerating indictment of our elites and corrupted institutions.

I reached out to longtime journalist David Sirota, who co-wrote the film — and can now add Academy Award nominee to his resume — for the latest episode of Vox Conversations. We discuss the critical responses to the film (and the tiffs he’s had over them), what he thought the movie was really trying to say, and whether he feels more or less optimistic about our situation after watching the world take the movie in.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

First of all, congrats on the Oscar nomination! I don’t know how many journalists can also claim an Oscar nom, but it’s a short list.

David Sirota

Yeah, it’s something I never would’ve expected in my life. I still feel like I’m having some kind of out-of-body experience, like when does this dream end? But apparently the nomination really happened. And I’m thrilled with how the movie has been received. I’m thrilled with how it has spurred so much conversation. I’m thrilled with how passionate the response has been.

When we put this movie out there, we knew that it was going to prompt really intense feelings all over the place because it touches on so many different themes. It touches on the climate crisis. It touches on our respect for science. It touches on media ethics and responsibility. It touches on whether our government works, whether it can work. It touches on our democracy. So we kind of knew that it was going to have a big response, but I will admit, we didn’t know it was going to have this big a response.

Sean Illing

Now that you’ve had some time to process everything, I want to ask you about some of those critical responses. My sense is that you were a little pissed off, that you thought a lot of people missed the point of the film.

David Sirota

I wasn’t pissed that people missed the point. I was a little bit confused. I was confused that the message of the movie was less important to some folks than other parts of the movie. And I want to be very clear about this: You do not have to like this movie. You can hate this movie. You can love this movie. That is not a reflection on your political values. It’s not a reflection on whether you believe in climate science or don’t believe in climate science. I think the thing that that was confusing to me was that the message of this movie is pretty clear and it’s an important message. And I think that’s what ultimately comes through.

Some of the feedback was, “Oh, the movie’s too on-the-nose,” or “The movie is too smug.” “Smug” presumes that the audience knows everything that’s already in the movie and you’re just telling them things they already know. And I don’t think that’s actually true. I think there’s a lot in this movie that folks in the audience may know implicitly, but haven’t really thought about it or haven’t laughed at it.

As for the whole “on-the-nose” thing. Listen, I think we need more movies, TV shows, and the like that are about the here and now. One thing that the response to this movie tells me is that there’s a lot of pent-up demand for movies and shows that actually wrestle with the scary things that are happening in our world. This movie comes right out and says it and lets us struggle with it and wrestle with it and it’s not beating around the bush. It’s not running away from that. And I think that’s what we need more of.

Sean Illing

I felt like the movie was mostly about systems and the perceived loss of agency we feel when we can both see what’s wrong with the world and also feel totally powerless to change it, which is not quite the same thing as saying we’re all in collective denial. Nor is it the same thing as calling Americans stupid, which I think was how a lot of people interpreted it.

David Sirota

I’m glad you bring that up. I actually don’t think the movie looks down on people at all. The movie is a critique, if anything, of elites, of people with lots of power. Regular folks are actually the victims of this. And we have various scenes where regular people figure out what’s going on and know they’re being lied to, know they’re being misled.

I heard someone say that one of the most optimistic parts of the movie was the scene where a guy at the president’s rally, where she’s saying, “Don’t look up,” actually looks up and sees the comet and says, “Wait a minute, they’ve been lying to us.”

There’s optimism in the idea that in our tribalized politics somebody would say, “Wait a minute, I am being lied to, and this is not acceptable.” Right now it feels like we are locked in this forever battle between one set of politicians and their followers, and another set of politicians and their followers. And no one wants to look at inconvenient truths that may dispel or debunk what the leader is saying.

So I think your point that there’s a feeling of powerlessness underneath this, a feeling that we’re trapped inside of a system that’s designed to turn information into entertainment, or distract us, in order to make us feel powerless — that’s the lament.

Sean Illing

This is partly why I kept going back to this feeling of powerlessness, and I know there were critics who thought the film was too fatalistic. But there is this widespread feeling we all have that the world is not right, that it doesn’t make sense, that we’re not equipped to deal with the problems we have, and it’s getting harder to even imagine a better world.

David Sirota

And I sympathize with that and there’s no easy answer to that feeling of helplessness and despair. I would concede that the movie’s story really is of these scientists trying to blow the whistle and feeling helpless about it.

You can take the two main characters, Leo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, and make them the voices in your own head. Leo is saying, “Listen, things are bad, but I can make this system work to solve the problem.” And then you have Jennifer Lawrence who’s like, “Things are really bad, and I’m going to try my best to make the system work, but the minute it fails, it’s just going to demoralize me. And it’s going to prove to me that it’s all hopeless.”

And those are the two voices that any rational person looking at this world probably hears in their own mind. I think there’s no easy solution to that, other than that we all have to do what we can do, what we know we should do in our own lives. If we can stipulate that there’s no individual solution to problems that require collective action, then we are also stipulating that we are never going to get the instant, individual gratification of doing a thing and feeling like we solved everything.

It’s never going to feel grandiose. It’s never going to feel big because these huge problems don’t get changed overnight. And frankly, social media and media culture in general, in addicting us to these dopamine hits, leads us to believe that if something isn’t giving me instant gratification right now, it must be valueless. It must mean I’m not solving the problem, but we have to step back and rewire ourselves and accept that when it comes to something like climate change, we’re going to be working the rest of our lives.

Sean Illing

The underlying theme of trust is a huge part of this. The government has delegitimized itself over and over again — from the forever wars to Enron to the financial crisis to Covid. And so it’s not just about reviving trust in institutions. It’s about creating institutions that deserve our trust. And the same is true of elites.

David Sirota

Let me just amplify that for a second. The shredding of the social contract between the public and its government is both a product of a right-wing ideology that has beat the drum about how inherently evil government is at least since the Reagan era and also a product of crises in which the government has absolutely failed and, at times, completely lied to people.

Think about the average person who’s, let’s say, 25 years old. They’ve lived through the country being lied into the Iraq War. They’ve lived through the media and politicians lying us into economic deregulation that led to the financial crisis, and that also led to the aftermath of the financial crisis, where the people who created the crisis got bailed out while 10 million people got thrown out of their homes. They’ve lived through the pandemic, which in many cases, the government seems to have not done a fantastic job. And at times, in high-profile ways, the government seems to be in collusion with the media to cover up some of the worst parts.

And now people are wondering, “Why doesn’t anybody trust the government? Why is there so much misinformation out there? Why do people not trust the media? Why are they going to folks who are pushing all sorts of wild misinformation who are outside of traditional establishment media?” Listen, I’m not saying it’s good that people are pushing misinformation, but we can’t sit here and wonder why people have lost trust in these institutions.

Rebuilding that trust is necessary if we’re going to deal with all these crises. We need to rebuild trust between the government, media institutions, and the public in order to ensure that science, especially climate science, lands and actually motivates the right policies. The problem is that sometimes science doesn’t give us black-or-white, yes-or-no answers.

There’s a scene in the movie where the White House is making fun of the percentages. “Oh, the asteroid has a 99.7 percent chance of hitting us. Well, it’s not 100 percent. Let’s just call it 70 percent,” and the point of that little scene is to say that opportunists will take the neutral, nonspecific parts of science and exploit that uncertainty. And the only way to combat that is to rebuild trust between these institutions and the public. And the only way to do that is for these institutions to actually have a commitment to not lie to us.

Sean Illing

The film ends in a dark place, but also a kind of beautiful and sentimental place. Is that where you are? Or are you feeling more energized and optimistic after the experience of making this film?

David Sirota

I’m definitely feeling more optimistic in the sense that I know there’s a pent-up demand for this kind of content. And there is more generally a pent-up demand for a more rational set of institutions and a more rational world. I know that people are frustrated. Clearly the reaction to the movie is one of the many expressions of that.

So I am really optimistic that that energy to start solving problems is there. But I am also deeply concerned that the energy can be channeled in so many different ways because of so many different opportunities for nefarious opportunists. And this has been a theme of my work for many, many years. I wrote a book called The Uprising, which was about how there was all this political energy in 2008 and that it could go in many different directions. It could go right-wing. It could go progressive. It was always unpredictable.

I think it actually went in a productive direction in that 2008 election. People were sick of the Bush administration, which was really a horrific administration, and they actually voted for change. What happened next is one of the biggest tragedies in history that we don’t necessarily recognize as one of the biggest tragedies in history.

The Obama administration came in with this huge mandate and made a series of decisions to use that mandate to try to prop up the current system, to try to just preserve it for a little bit longer. Top-down bailouts, not bailouts that helped actual homeowners, and so on. If you don’t really try to deliver for working people, if you only try to prop back up the system, ultimately that ends up helping the opportunists, the right-wing authoritarian opportunists. And I think there is a direct line from the reaction to that financial crisis to the rise of Donald Trump.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.