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A Comedy Nails the Media Apocalypse

After the president, a former nude model, tries to cover up a major discovery, two astronomers leak the news to a New York newspaper known for its Gothic banner, which the new film “Don’t Look Up” calls The New York Herald: A comet is going to destroy the earth in six months.

The journalists are sober and passionate as they get down to work in a glass conference room. They publish the blockbuster, then send the pair of scientists off to an influential morning news program, “The Daily Rip” — think “Morning Joe,” with a dash of “Live With Kelly and Ryan” — to promote the news. And that’s when things start to go awry. “Keep it light, fun,” one producer tells the scientists, who are played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. As soon as they sit down, the Joe Scarborough proxy, played by an irresistible Tyler Perry, leans in to ask what’s really on his mind: Is there life on other planets?

After putting up with the morning-show-style banter for much of the segment, Jennifer Lawrence’s character has had enough. “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun,” she yells. “Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying and unsettling and you should stay up all night, every night, crying.”

The clip of her losing it on the air earns wide attention — as a meme that gets likes and laughs on social media. Her boyfriend, a reporter for a sardonic news site called Autopsy, moves fast to make the most of her outburst under a two-sentence headline that’s its own kind of internet cliché: “You Know the Crazy Chick Who Thinks We’re All Going to Die? I Actually Slept With Her.”

Back at The Herald, a social media specialist delivers a slick PowerPoint presentation to show that the story isn’t driving much traffic. The news cycle moves on.

I’m a little hesitant to praise a political movie, because Hollywood’s political statements tend to be vapid. Talk is cheap, and an impassioned outburst at an awards show is free. True spontaneous passion is usually reserved for, say, defending the method acting involved in the show “Succession.” What makes “Don’t Look Up” interesting is that its writer and director, Adam McKay, is putting his money, and his career, where his mouth is.

Since breaking out with “Anchorman,” a broad parody of local TV news, he has made a pair of films with a political edge, “The Big Short,” a gonzo take on the financial crisis, and “Vice,” the bitterly comic story of Vice President Dick Cheney. “Don’t Look Up” has a raft of stars — the president is played by Meryl Streep — and the familiar arc of big-budget disaster flicks like “Armageddon” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” But while all of Mr. McKay’s films have been attuned to the intertwined roles of media and politics, this is his first movie since “Anchorman” to put the news media squarely in its sights.

The new opus shows Mr. McKay as “one of America’s most incisive media critics, even if he’s not necessarily recognized that way,” said David Sirota, a co-producer of the film, who is better known as a combative journalist who advised Senator Bernie Sanders during his 2020 presidential campaign and now runs The Daily Poster, an investigative news site.

Mr. McKay said he tried five different ideas that would allow him to make a movie about the climate crisis, but nothing worked. “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years, without exaggeration, since the Chicxulub comet, bigger than the Black Plague, bigger than Krakatoa?” he said in an interview, describing the question that kept him up at night.

“How can we be looking at the greatest story in human history,” he continued, “but most nights I’m not hearing it talked about — or when it is being talked about, it’s in the fourth block, or the ninth story down?”

Adam McKay struggled when he started to plan a film about the climate crisis: “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years?”Credit…Theo Wargo/Getty Images

He hit on the solution while talking one night in January 2019 with Mr. Sirota, who was venting about the news media’s passive reaction to climate change, saying it was as though a meteor was headed for earth and no one seemed to get it. Soon, the two were texting plot points back and forth.

“Don’t Look Up” is populated by politicians and Silicon Valley madmen denying reality for their own reasons, behaving in ways that are recognizably self-interested and deluded. But the real villain is a news media that is forever chasing after a distracted audience and, as a result, simply … cannot … focus.

When the two scientists emphasize the reality of the coming apocalypse during their appearance on “The Daily Rip,” the host played by Mr. Perry is singularly focused on one thing: whether the meteor will take out his ex-wife’s house in Florida. The other host, played by Cate Blanchett as a charming, hyper-educated, amoral stand-in for Mika Brzezinski, is more interested in the DiCaprio character’s nerdy sex appeal.

(I did ask Mr. McKay if we could have a moratorium on fictional female journalists sleeping with their subjects, even if they’re Mr. DiCaprio in the guise of a nerdy scientist. He replied that “the funnest characters are the ones who are sleeping with people and a little reprehensible.”)

One of the charms of “Don’t Look Up” is that none of its characters are immune to the vanities of this media age. At one point, a high-minded NASA official who is trying to save the planet is pictured rejoicing that a pop star, played by Ariana Grande, has reunited with her boyfriend.

“That’s me calling myself out,” Mr. McKay said. “I am in no way above this. I really want Ben Affleck and J. Lo to find happiness together, and I really am excited about what next thing is Taco Bell going to make — is it a burrito full of little burritos?”

In a twist right out of the movie itself, much of the publicity for “Don’t Look Up” has been focused on Hollywood gossip. Early in the rollout, Mr. McKay told Vanity Fair that he hadn’t spoken with his longtime partner Will Ferrell, the star of “Anchorman” and other McKay films, including “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights,” since he cast a different actor to play the lead in a planned HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers.

Seeing a Hollywood spat push aside an earnest message on climate change was “almost hilariously ironic,” Mr. McKay said. (Then he spent a few more minutes talking about how the chatter about him and Mr. Ferrell wasn’t quite accurate. For the record: “That’s not why Will and I split up — we’d been split up for three months. That turned us into not talking.” OK!)

Mr. McKay was also unable to stay out of the fray over the actor Jeremy Strong’s interview with The New Yorker last week about his role in the show “Succession,” of which Mr. McKay is also an executive producer.

Good journalism is always a balance between telling people what they want to hear and what they need to know. Mr. McKay’s contention is that decades of a hyperactive media market, and years of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, have thrown things out of whack.

I was reminded of that point the other night at the introduction of a new journalism program named in honor of Harry Evans, the crusading Times of London editor who came to New York after refusing to do the bidding of the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Evans, the historian Simon Schama recalled, had been a “hot-metal journalist” who had overcome British legal restrictions to expose the ravages of the drug thalidomide in the 1970s. His great subject, Mr. Schama noted, was corporate malfeasance.

“If he were here now, he would say the slow death of the earth isn’t a small thing to get upset about,” Mr. Schama said.

We don’t live, exactly, in the world of an Adam McKay satire. My colleague Dennis Overbye wrote last week that when he brought word of a dangerous asteroid to a New York Times news meeting in 1998, the reaction was “purposeful pandemonium,” not denial. And “Morning Joe” gets more criticism for doom-saying about American democracy than for frivolity.

When it comes to the climate story, the media’s failings are undeniable, and there is still a wide gap between the urgency and the attention it commands. However, the journalism on the topic has grown more urgent in tone and more widely seen over the last few years. It’s harder-edged, more numerate and more closely connected to the floods, fires and December tornadoes that have upended millions of people’s lives.

But great satire amplifies obvious truths, and there’s no doubt that “Don’t Look Up” contains those moments of recognition. David Roberts, the author of the clean energy newsletter Volts, called it “the first good movie about climate change.”

The global failure to slow carbon emissions, like the failure to control the Covid-19 pandemic, is partly a story about hard science. But it’s more about society’s ability or inability to take action, and the news media had played a large role in that willful turning away from a difficult truth. “Don’t Look Up” ends — spoiler alert! — badly for humanity, but before it does, a Fox News-style host whistles manically past the grave. We’ll be moving on, he tells his viewers as the world is ending, to “the story that everyone is talking about tonight — topless urgent care centers.”

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