"But the yelling lady? Not so much."
There's one scene in Don't Look Up that's been sticking in the back of my mind.
[Spoiler warning for the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up ahead]
Happy 2022, everybody. Here’s hoping this year is a little easier than the last one.
After a week of observing the intense Twitter debate over whether or not Don’t Look Up is a good movie/the best movie/a bad movie/the worst movie/just sort of okay/etc., I finally got around to watching it. My verdict: I really liked it!1 (And it’s okay if you didn’t like it.)
In case you haven’t seen it (and are okay with spoilers — for real, you should probably stop reading this now if you don’t want to read spoilers), here’s the plot, via IMDB:
Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), an astronomy grad student, and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) make an astounding discovery of a comet orbiting within the solar system. The problem - it's on a direct collision course with Earth. The other problem? No one really seems to care. Turns out warning mankind about a planet-killer the size of Mount Everest is an inconvenient fact to navigate. With the help of Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall embark on a media tour that takes them from the office of an indifferent President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her sycophantic son and Chief of Staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), to the airwaves of The Daily Rip, an upbeat morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). With only six months until the comet makes impact, managing the 24-hour news cycle and gaining the attention of the social media obsessed public before it's too late proves shockingly comical - what will it take to get the world to just look up?
It’s not a subtle movie, and that’s okay. Now might not be the time for subtlety. (See also: The Matrix Resurrections.)2 Yes, the comet is a metaphor for climate change. It wasn’t meant to be subtle.3
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As someone who has worked in the world of media criticism for a number of years, there was one scene in particular that absolutely knocked me on my ass. About 35 minutes in, Dibiasky (Lawrence) and Mindy (DiCaprio) stop by The Daily Rip to get the word out about the comet they discovered. Following a segment about a celebrity break-up that had on-screen phones buzzing with push alerts, Dibiasky and Mindy struggle to get their message through to the show’s hosts Brie (Blanchett) and Jack (Perry).
“I’m sorry, are we not being clear?” says Dibiasky. “We’re trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed.”
Brie brushes her off by saying that they just try to “keep the bad news light.”
“Well, maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying and unsettling,” says Dibiasky. “And you should stay up all night, every night crying when we’re all 100% for sure gonna f*cking die!”
Dibiasky storms off the set, leaving just Mindy and the two hosts.
“The handsome astronomer can come back anytime,” Brie says. “But the yelling lady? Not so much.”
It’s at this point that the careers of Dibiasky and Mindy take wildly different turns. Mindy becomes a media darling and transforms through the course of the movie from a schlubby dude (relative to standard Leonardo DiCaprio looks) with a terrible beard and pre-TV panic attacks into a, well… a Leonardo DiCaprio type character. His beard is neatly trimmed, he gets a new pair of glasses and a new wardrobe. He gets fancy job titles and all the screen time he can handle.
Dibiasky, on the other hand, moves back home with her parents and takes a job as a check-out clerk at a local store, condemned to a life of being recognized as the “crazy lady” from her one TV appearance.
In the end, none of it matters. Mindy doesn’t speak out about President Orlean (Streep) until it’s too late and the fate of humanity hangs on the extraordinary promises of Peter Isherwell (an Elon Musk/Mark Zuckerberg/Jack Dorsey type played to perfection by Mark Rylance). The greed-driven attempt by Isherwell (with support from Orlean) to extract minerals from the comet fails and life on the planet (mostly) ceases to exist.
Okay, okay, okay… So, you’re probably wondering why that scene hit me so hard. The answer: Because I’ve been “the yelling lady” before.
No, I’ve never stormed off the set of a TV show or cursed someone out on air (nor would I), but the difference between Dibiasky and Mindy is one we’ve all seen play out. There are two experts on a topic. One of those experts knows how to “play the game” and the other doesn’t. And that’s just it. The one who doesn’t correctly “play the game” never gets another shot, and the one who does know how to “play the game” is only good to the news outlets until they veer from the path that’s been paved for them (as Mindy learns in the movie). If you show any emotion, if you speak passionately about an issue, don’t get your hopes up for a return invite.4 It’s a one-and-done kind of deal.
I honestly don’t know exactly why I don’t get invited to appear on TV5, but I was recently told by someone in that world that I just don’t know how to “play the game.” That’s stuck with me because it could mean just about anything. Was it that I was rude to someone on Twitter? Did I write a bad article? Have my opinions and predictions6 been off? What is it? I correctly predicted the influence the #StopTheSteal hashtag would have in rallying Trump supporters to try to overturn the election results in 2020 (which is even more frustrating knowing that Facebook waited until April 2021 to acknowledge that the tag was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election"). Leading up to the 2016 election, I loudly pushed for media outlets to acknowledge that Trump’s “pro-LGBTQ” image was a figment of their own imaginations, a complete invention (and after, called on them to reckon with the harm their bad reporting on the topic did).
It’s all just… it’s all very frustrating. I am beyond grateful for each and every one of you who reads and subscribes to this newsletter, but it frustrates me to no end that whether or not I’m able to make a living from my writing and reporting depends largely on whether or not one of the big cable channels decides to invite me on to discuss something I wrote.
There’s not just one comet headed for us, but many. Climate change, poverty, open calls for fascism and a disregard for democracy on the right, attacks on basic civil rights, pandemics, and more. And for each one, there are experts we aren’t hearing from because they don’t “play the game.” And yes, my areas of expertise (specifically, the way media influences how literally everything in society works) do fit in with the various comets. If you want to understand society’s problems, you need to understand how media operates and influences.
I know this has been a bit of a whiny start to the year (sorry, but thank you for indulging me), but after seeing that movie and relating to Dibiasky as much as I did, I felt it was worth writing about.
Wishing you a happy and healthy new year,
In total fairness, as I’ve said many times before, I’d be a terrible film critic. I know nothing about cinema, and rarely find myself actively disliking a movie I went out of my way to see. For instance, my thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker were basically “It was fun!” even though it’s probably my least favorite movie I’ve watched in the past 5 years.
After various elements of the original Matrix trilogy — which were intended as a trans allegory — were co-opted by right-wing dudes (see: “red-pilled”), you can’t really blame Lana Wachowski for hitting audiences over the head with the new film’s message. That said, some will certainly go out of their way to misinterpret it.
And even after all of that, some people still insist on missing the point. But also, if you didn’t like the movie, that’s totally cool. Some of the online discourse around it has been a bit much.
Obviously, there is a place for “the yelling lady” on TV, but she tends to be the right-wing voice on a panel, conventionally attractive, blonde hair, etc. This line from a 2017 New York Times Magazine profile of CNN head Jeff Zucker has stuck with me:
“As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are ‘characters in a drama,’ members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast. ‘Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’ but you know what?’ Zucker told me with some satisfaction. ‘They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.’”
The last time I was on TV was, I think… 2014(?) on an episode of All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. It was thoroughly unremarkable.
I’m planning on writing a piece about the zero-accountability world of political predictions at some point in the coming weeks.