“It’s a funny thing how everything keeps shoving me back to Hollywood or Beverly Hills,” says John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), the blowhard auteur at the center of Preston Sturges’s deathless satirical odyssey Sullivan’s Travels. Having set out to paint a “canvas of human suffering” that will allow him to finally bite the invisible hand of an industry that’s kept him well fed for years, Sullivan learns the hard way that he’s better off simply trying to make people laugh; every time he climbs up on his high horse, he’s knocked back down. “It’s almost like gravity,” he muses, “as if some force were saying ‘get back where you belong.’”
Gravity is at the center of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, an apocalyptic comedy in which Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play twin Chicken Littles gesturing broadly toward a falling sky. But more than anything it’s gravitas that McKay seems to be after. Don’t Look Up was recently voted the winner of this year’s Writers Guild Award for Original Screenplay, and, this Sunday, it may win a few Oscars as well. The film, which was subsidized by Netflix, is a messy and inane statement of purpose by a director who is drowning in purpose—and statements. At this point, another statuette could serve as a life preserver.
No one else makes movies like McKay, which is probably for the best. But then again no one else is capable of convincing studios to subsidize their climate apocalypse clip show to the tune of $75 million. How did McKay get here? The director’s interests in broad comedy, domestic politics, and the effects of and opportunities presented by mass media emerged early, during Saturday Night Live’s fertile turn-of-the-millennium run: the title of his pioneering website, Funny or Die, implied a vital, picaresque conception of comedy as an urgent life force. McKay wrote for SNL from 1995 until 2001 (serving as head writer for three seasons) and was the architect of Will Ferrell’s inspired impersonation of George W. Bush as a lazy frat boy, which deepened after September 11, when the decider suddenly had more on his plate than the chimichangas. It was an archetype for which the actor—with his native gift for inhabiting hollow-eyed goofballs—was uniquely suited, even if the conceit could never fully overcome its redundancy. Still, at a time when left-liberal peers like Jon Stewart and Tina Fey (McKay’s successor as head writer) cultivated braininess as a sop to college-age audiences, McKay distinguished his Dubya slander via a distinctive form of satirical inversion.
Or maybe jujitsu. Beginning with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, McKay’s movies leaned into (white, male) American idiocy so squarely that they seemed to destabilize it, if not upend it outright: ostranenie for the Toby Keith era. The news team rumble at the center of Anchorman was one apotheosis of McKay’s brand of radical stupidity, with the pettiness of media-class one-upmanship reconfigured as Scorsesean urban-tribal warfare, the movie’s 1970s period setting at once lubricating and making permissible all manner of winking, righteously mustachioed sexism. The climax of Talladega Nights was another high point, with Ferrell’s aw-shucks NASCAR driver first pummeling and then tentatively making out with a smarmy, Camus-reading French rival sponsored by Perrier. Here McKay and his heroic editor Brent White entwined various strands of Bush-era cultural warfare—freedom-fried xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, gay panic—into a single set piece punctuated, perfectly, by an ad for Applebee’s. Opening Step Brothers to the strains of LCD Soundsystem’s seditious “North American Scum” was a more subtle gambit—subtle only in the extremely permissive McKayan sense of the word—but methodologically consistent.
This untouchable run lasted from Anchorman to The Other Guys, which extended McKay and Ferrell into the action-comedy genre and roped in a not-yet-desultory Mark Wahlberg. During the Bush years and into the first Obama Administration, McKay worked with a winning, slovenly confidence, indulging his and his collaborators’ goofiest instincts and shooting sequences so haphazardly that he and White could cobble together an entire alternate film out of expendable footage (Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie).
And then, to quote the man himself, things escalated quickly. For whatever reason, McKay recruited the editor Hank Corwin to give his 2015 Michael Lewis adaptation The Big Short a frenetic and elliptical style. Corwin had worked with Oliver Stone on some of his Oliver Stoniest movies (Natural Born Killers, U Turn), and with Terrence Malick on The New World and Tree of Life; the ambient prestige was too much for McKay to resist. What the pair delivered were two hours and twenty minutes of sardonic truthiness and unalloyed rancor, glossy agitprop that moved both very quickly and not at all. Here and there, The Big Short achieves moments of genuine, WTF incongruity, like when a detour to Las Vegas is soundtracked for no reason at all by the organ sting from The Phantom of the Opera, but the style is strained throughout. It’s a movie that reaches for effects and only occasionally gets them; the lasting impression is of the reaching.
During the press tour for The Big Short, basketball fan McKay talked about cultivating a mid-range shot in pickup games as a metaphor for extending his own skill set. The intentionally enervating Dick Cheney biopic Vice was the cinematic equivalent of dunking on a two-foot rim. The Big Short wasn’t as funny as his collaborations with Ferrell, but in its brash juxtapositions—and underlying thesis that Wall Street denizens are as stupid as anybody else—it periodically generated effects that bore a tentative relationship to humor. By contrast, Vice was grim and ponderous—an SNL sketch trying to be Richard III (complete with a scene where the characters scheme in iambic pentameter, to really hammer home the joke). Emboldened by The Big Short’s reception, McKay doubled down on Corwin’s whiz-bang editing and narrative switchbacks—which hadn’t felt thrilling since at least the mid-1990s—and as a result Vice felt as long and listless as the late Bush years—or as Stone’s similarly lethargic, misguided W., which at least took its potshots in real time.
Overlong and suffused with prestige, Vice was most effective as a resurfacing of Bush’s bit players, like Cheney’s evil chief of staff David Addington, but its labored efforts to account for what happened in the decade after Bush left office (like a mid-credits focus group scene pitting libs and Trumpkins against each other) only clarified McKay’s out-of-touchness—or maybe his need to get in the last word. The problem was that after a decade to reflect, he had nothing much to say and an increasingly elaborate cinematic vocabulary with which to not say it. A filmmaker who previously seemed in on a pretty good joke had become a punchline in some larger gag of his own making. In his attempt to swap out comedy for cautionary tales, McKay has become one.
After the belatedness of Vice and the everything-and-five-kitchen-sinks omnivorousness of The Big Short, McKay has narrowed his focus and chosen his fighter: American cinema’s reigning leftist, non–Susan Sarandon division. In the days leading up to Don’t Look Up’s streaming release on Netflix in December, McKay came in heavy on social media, imputing to his haters political bad faith and even climate denialism. The subtext of these tweets, written in response to negative press, was big enough to be visible from space and boiled down to a phrase McKay had once deployed with satirical precision: “You’re Welcome, America!” “Loving all the heated debate [about] our movie,” McKay posted on December 29. “But if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing, I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense.”
Elaborate gag constructor Adam McKay would have had a lot of fun with this defensive piety, or with the idea that a mean-spirited, mostly freelance film critical establishment wields disproportionate influence over America’s environmental policy (now there’s a premise for a movie). Public intellectual Adam McKay—he of the fawning profiles declaring him “the grown-up in the room”—seems determined to avoid fun altogether, to the point that his movies can barely conjure it anymore. Like climate change itself, the process seems irreversible. McKay’s bid for non-triviality has effected a self-willed artistic mutation into a major critic of the American experience, a Gen-X Sidney Lumet.
But which Lumet? In 2008, when Lumet was pushing 85, Armond White called for the director’s imprisonment. This was and remains a minority view. Though his reputation was in retreat by the time of his death in 2011—his remarkable and ugly final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is aggressively underappreciated—Lumet had a great run. For a director who once said that masterpieces were accidents, he had a number of them over the course of five decades: The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, Running on Empty. In trying to locate a common denominator for Lumet’s wide and varied body of work, David Thomson settled on the filmmaker’s “urgent commitment to ethical responsibility,” as expressed through narratives pinned to moral conundrums and crusades: a lone juror holding out for a defendant’s innocence; an honest cop debating whether to inform on his colleagues; a President trying to head off mutually assured destruction. “While the goal of all movies is to entertain, the kind of film in which I believe goes one step further,” wrote Lumet in 1965, somewhat McKayly. “It compels the spectator to examine one facet or another of his own conscience.”
The tension between virtue and vigor made Lumet a formidable director, despite the skepticism of those who saw in his success an early incursion of television aesthetics onto cinematic turf. Following the example of Elia Kazan, Lumet melded the choreography and psychology of stage direction to techniques designed for the camera, emerging as a hybrid whose movies retained a bracing sense of spontaneity and intimacy; the deliberation scenes in 12 Angry Men have the pressurized intensity of live theater, the actors coiled like rubber bands about to snap. And, like Kazan, Lumet was apt to criticize the medium that served as a middleman between the stage and the movie screen, fashioning 1976’s Network as a spiritual sequel to Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, twin studies of American demagoguery lubricated by a mendacious mass media. In A Face in the Crowd, a feckless drifter becomes a populist iconoclast by means of a popular television show; in Network, a popular anchorman’s ongoing psychotic episode is exploited by his producers for ratings.
Despite Lumet’s tremendous range, nothing in his work looms larger than Network—at least to American directors interested in making televisual political interventions with an equal fervency. McKay has cited Network in interviews because it would be absurd not to. Years before self-seriousness was on his mind he had Steve Carrell’s Brick Tamland scream “I can’t control the volume of my voice!”—a riff on the bellowing delivery of Lumet’s actors. Also in Anchorman, he revised the misogyny of Faye Dunaway’s predatorily sexual, crypto-feminist network executive through the sympathetic presence of Christina Applegate as a female newscaster stifled by boys-club hijinks. But then again everyone from Aaron Sorkin, to Spike Lee, to Weird Al Yankovic (listed here in inverse order of artistic achievement) has drawn on the film. In the late ’90s one could even detect the emergence of a Network-indebted mini-canon: Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Costa-Gavras’s Mad City, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog. Those were good days for TV and good days for its critiques. McKay is certainly right that network TV hasn’t gotten any better, and he’s especially right that its power hasn’t really receded.
One way to look at Network is as a thought experiment about what it would have been like if Walter Cronkite went off-script and grilled the Warren Commission, or started implying that the moon landing had been faked. Contra McKay, who recently told Vanity Fair that Network must have seemed “absurd and oversized . . . to an audience of that time,” the irony of Lumet’s film is that, to a post-Watergate viewership composed of skeptical, disenfranchised Americans, paranoid delusions sound like truth to power. Like the pavement-pounding heroes of All The President’s Men and Hunter S. Thompson and inaugural Weekend Update newsreader Chevy Chase, “the mad prophet of the airwaves” is the journalist as culture warrior, urging us to listen to his cries: things are out of hand, this goes all the way to the top, follow the money, and so on.
McKay has the good sense to invert Network’s meanings for our present tense—or at least he gives inversion a decent shot. The morning-show audience that watches DiCaprio’s hapless astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy sputter and cry about the inexorable, existential nature of the threat currently en route (a speech supposedly conceived and rewritten by the actor some fifteen times) isn’t mad as hell so much as numb as hell; for a chronically doomscrolling population, prophecy barely rates as a trending topic. As was clear throughout Anchorman and during the best moments of Talladega Nights and The Big Short, McKay’s true subject isn’t climate change or Covid denialism or ideological polarization, but the brain-melting distraction of the contemporary media landscape. This is the real target of all that jagged, non-sequitur editing, with its inexplicable frozen images, loaded-yet-empty emblems of a depleted attention.
And indeed the multimedia collages woven together by Corwin are arresting on their own terms: nature doc cutaways; Google Image searches; stock footage; TikToks. The paradox, however, is that in trying to find a visual language to illustrate how 24-hour news shows and unfettered internet access have shortened our collective attention spans, McKay has cultivated his own form of superfluous virtuosity—one that distracts and disfigures his aims of limning our collective, minutes-to-midnight conscience. Writing in The Intercept, Jon Schwarz theorized that Don’t Look Up was “Dr. Strangelove for Climate Change,” which is surely the comparison that McKay wants. But the final moments of Don’t Look Up are actually closer to the climax of Lumet’s Fail-Safe, a white-knuckle thriller that came out the same year as Kubrick’s movie and has always suffered by comparison. Like Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe takes on the theme of mutually assured destruction; unlike Dr. Strangelove, it approaches the problem straight up—which is to say, humorlessly. When Peter Sellers’s Adlai Stevenson stand-in Merkin Muffley gets on the hotline to the Kremlin, he has to politely ask the Soviet premier to turn down the music; in Fail-Safe, the ear-splitting sound coming over the line from Moscow is the American Ambassador’s phone melting in the aftermath of a nuclear blast.
Like most of Lumet’s best movies, Fail-Safe takes the form of a moral parable, or maybe a thought experiment. Twenty years before WarGames informed us that “the only winning move is not to play,” Henry Fonda’s nameless commander-in-chief—a ramrod-straight evocation of the recently deceased JFK, who happens to be Dr. Strangelove’s structuring absence—makes the ultimate sacrifice. Sizing up a no-win situation caused by American computer error, he opts to wipe Manhattan off the map, heading off retaliation with an act of supreme sacrifice—an act of masochism-as-patriotism. In the late 1980s, Alan Moore would credit the seminal Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear” with inspiring the finale of his epic comic books series Watchmen, in which Alexandrian wannabe Adrian Veidt destroys New York for similarly pragmatic reasons. But the evidence that he and artist Dave Gibbons were riffing on Fail-Safe is plain on the page; their final countdown pilfers the grim lyricism of Lumet’s ending. After two hours spent hunkered down in airless, fluorescent rooms with sweaty, hand-wringing avatars of military intelligence, the camera suddenly travels outside to capture lean little slices of verité, traffic snarl and pavement chatter, as a flock of pigeons—dark harbingers, like Hitchcock’s birds—takes flight at the moment of impact.
Don’t Look Up’s homage is a little too shameless to register as such. McKay and Corwin intercut images of unspoiled mountains and innocently capering wildlife with DiCaprio’s climactic dinner table toast—an at-the-buzzer attempt at truly globalizing a catastrophe the film examines in the most solipsistic way possible, almost exclusively through the lens of American partisanship. In these moments it’s hard not to think of a different Moore—that’d be Michael—a more shameless and successful middlebrow muckraker. Moore may borrow his editing strategies and rhetoric from Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, but as a writer he’s a Paddy Chayefksyian all the way, or maybe a cannier iteration of Howard Beale. What, really, is the upshot of glib, artificially jerry-rigged polemics like Roger & Me, Bowling For Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11 beyond the revelation that their maker is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? But where Moore, who is on some level a great filmmaker, has a genuine confidence man’s gift for forging complicity with his audience—for making ideologically aligned viewers feel variably like collaborators, constituents, and witnesses to his windmill-tilting crusades—McKay’s smug, pseudo-Brechtian asides, intended to beef up his stylistic bona fides, condescend under pretenses of leveling the intellectual playing field, superiority thinly disguised as solidarity. After a while, it’s enough to make a viewer become a fourth-wall preservationist.
What works best in Don’t Look Now is McKay’s selection of an emotionally anodyne tech bro as his villain. There’s more comic finesse in Mark Rylance’s affectless acting as the obliviously utopian Peter Isherwell than the rest of the film’s cast put together (certainly more than Meryl Streep’s brutally unfunny Hillary-Trump mash-up). In a witty reversal of Fail-Safe, Isherwood convinces Streep’s President Janie Orlean at the moment of truth not to shoot down a tactical nuke aimed at the approaching meteor, hoping instead to extract a valuable store of minerals from its core; the suggestion that the real American decision-makers reside in the private sector rather than the Oval Office lands like an actual haymaker. But it’s outnumbered by sucker punches, like the decision to append a post-apocalyptic epilogue where Isherwell, Orlean, et al flee to another planet only to be picked off and eaten by its carnivorous inhabitants. It’s an unconvincing bit of comeuppance that undercuts any residual sense of Lumetian—or even Strangelovian—pathos.
“We’ll meet again,” croons Vera Lynn over shots of a mushroom cloud at the end of Dr. Strangelove—the ultimate contrapuntal music cue, leveraging the song’s optimistic certainty against the obliterating finality of the imagery for a laugh that sticks in the throat. Probably the highest compliment that could be paid to Kubrick’s film is that it didn’t win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, losing—inevitably—to the lavish big-screen escapism of My Fair Lady. The best way to damn Don’t Look Up with faint praise, meanwhile, is to say that it has a pretty decent chance. Perhaps McKay has found his place after all. Don’t Look Up, meanwhile, is worthy of streaming on Netflix for posterity, in perpetuity, however long that may be.