In 1944, George Orwell got a letter from TS Eliot, a director at Faber, rejecting his political satire, Animal Farm. There were several reasons. First, it was not the right time. Also, said the creator of The Waste Land, “the effect is simply one of negation”. The poet took issue, too, with the wholesale disrespecting of pigs, since they were logically the “best qualified to run the farm”, being the cleverest. “What was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public spirited pigs.”
So, if some leading film critics watching Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (currently most-watched on Netflix) have hankered for a less satirical kind of satire, they are in distinguished company. TS Eliot might well have agreed with these reviewers that McKay’s savaging of a society too corrupt and deluded to save itself from an urgent threat to life on Earth, in the film’s case, a comet, could have been more cheerfully done. For instance, echoing Eliot on pigs, some of the more cartoonish leads could have been made more relatable. How about humanising lead villain Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance being mesmerising), a creepy tech billionaire who, absurdly, intends to live forever? Meanwhile, McKay’s US president, the preposterous Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) has appointed her dreadful son chief of staff. Why can’t these grievous weirdos with their silly dialogue be more like, say, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk?
Even the obscure scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) attempting to convince an irresponsible leader and a clicks-obsessed media that the Earth truly is in danger, should, it’s been suggested, have been awarded intriguing personal journeys that would offset the more apocalyptic content. Implicit in the professional objections to this film – it is “angry”, “smug”, “sad”, “shrill”, “condescending”, “scattergun”, “disastrous”, “insensitive”, “unfunny”, “depressing”, “heavy handed” but also “toothless” – is the proposal that, if McKay wanted to jolt disengaged people into noticing, even talking about, collective complacency on global warming, some sort of gentler, more immersive approach could have been more effective.
How would that work? Maybe imagine Swift’s A Modest Proposal if he’d cut all the heavy-handed sarcasm, stopped droning on about mirrors and considered how baby-eating made vegans feel. Or something akin to political cartoons minus any dung, pigs or insensitive face/body caricature.
That the film has, however, an approval rating of 77% against the critics’ 55% (on Rotten Tomatoes) could indicate that the public has a relatively higher tolerance for angry, broad, insulting etc material, at least when this feels like a justifiable response to current politics. Though it helps if it’s funny, biting, gleefully performed by an incredible cast and finally pulls off a massive tonal shift, from propulsive near-farce to stillness and regret. “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” says DiCaprio’s scientist. “I mean, if you think about it.” In fact, Don’t Look Up ends, for all its irksome negativity, by telling us something unusually positive about satire. Maybe, for all the repeated announcements of its death or terminal feebleness, this genre can still be revived, as now, into vigorous, exhilarating life?
After the disparaging reviews, scientists in particular responded that the film’s depiction of their discipline being ignored and trivialised rings utterly true. Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, called it “the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen”.
“Keep it light, fun,” the fictional scientists are exhorted, before discussing imminent extinction on a Fox-like chatshow. And “couldn’t it have been more light, fun?” is a fair summary, by coincidence, of the advice for McKay from detractors.
Events dictated that his film offers an additional, aka “scattergun”, commentary on leaders who in the pandemic favoured President Orlean’s approach to an incoming health catastrophe: “sit tight and assess”. No satirist could have anticipated Trump’s bleach advocacy or his fellow fantasist Boris Johnson’s view of the virus as an adversary to be, when he chose to acknowledge its existence, “wrestled to the floor”. McKay’s film doesn’t feature a hilariously vain government figure shagging in the face of extinction: sensitive audiences would probably have thought a Hancockian character either in poor taste, heavy handed or simply unbelievable. “It was already a crazy script but I would say reality out-crazied us by like 10 to 15%,” McKay said. “Well done, reality.”
It’s largely because of this routine out-crazying by the usual suspects that satire became the subject of repeated obituaries. But given the professional bollocking administered to McKay’s death-defying production it could also be that old-school, Swiftian satire – that is, not nice and not nuanced – has itself dwindled in appeal. Supposing, as Professor Robert Phiddian has argued, contemporary academics find the conventions of satire frustratingly arbitrary and simplifying, it could be that certain viewers similarly bridle at a film whose authorial intention lies beyond productive dispute.
Though shamelessness in public life hasn’t, as it turns out, rendered satire impossible, it hardly invites subtle treatment. How, with the recommended light touch, is a satirist supposed to ridicule a leader who, performing press-ups or other tricks for free editorial, counts his absurdity as a superpower? Nor, given Boris Johnson’s likely successors, is his departure likely to reset satirical standards to those prevailing when Dr Strangelove, with which McKay’s film has been disobligingly compared, was having fun with double entendres.
Liz Truss, Johnson’s would-be replacement, was posing in scarlet costumes and an eye-catching new pompadour well before Meryl Streep was accused by critics of overdoing it as the scarlet-suited, over-ringleted President Orlean. Actually, when compared with Truss’s patriotic cheese oration (“That. Is. A. Disgrace”), President Orlean’s rhetoric as she, too, poses as saviour of the free world, is notably sane. Truss won’t be impossible to satirise, but any attempt that isn’t at least unkind, angry, shrill, insensitive, preposterous and depressing is likely to look like PR.