Her speech could not have been less persuasive to the demographic she seemed most desperate to reach.
Nearly five years after that speech, “Don’t Look Up,” Netflix’s star-studded disaster satire featuring Streep alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, spends over two hours making the same mistake. In its efforts to champion its cause, the film only alienates those who most need to be moved by its message.
The movie’s heavy-handed premise is that a huge comet is on a collision course for Earth, but the corrupt, self-absorbed president (played by Streep) and the evil media are choosing to ignore the danger because they believe they might be able to profit from it.
It’s a climate change metaphor that should be inherently sympathetic. Unfortunately, there’s never been a more hostile environment in which to use it.
As “Don’t Look Up” would have it, the biggest problem facing the world is that the gullible public and greedy elites keep refusing to listen to the clever scientists.
As counterintuitive as it may sometimes seem, to win people over, science must remain apolitical.
Science is objective — the “math,” as “Don’t Look Up” constantly puts it, either adds up, or it doesn’t. But as soon as scientific truth becomes inherently associated with one political creed, people who have conflicting political sympathies will be predisposed to mistrust it.
As well-intentioned as the writers and cast of “Don’t Look Up” undoubtedly are, the goal of defending scientific fact must be dissociated from that of asserting moral superiority. The constant implication that those who hesitate to accept fresh evidence — be that of the safety of vaccines, or the comet’s impact — are stupid, corrupt and hail from the “wrong” side politically, only adds another hurdle for science to overcome.
Toward the end of the movie, as one of the plainly Trumpian rallies held by Streep’s character descends into chaos, Jonah Hill — playing Streep’s son and chief of staff — shouts “rednecks” over his shoulder while making his escape. The intended message — that the “bad” politicians who try to fool the public have nothing but contempt for them — is tainted by the fact that the “good” guys who made the film don’t seem to think much of them either.
The champions of science must always try to leave politics at the door. Otherwise, the task is not just convincing people that the comet is coming, the planet is rapidly overheating or the vaccine will protect them. It is also forcing huge swathes of the population to accept that a cornerstone of their personal ideology is wrong.
And when the comet is this close, there just isn’t time for that.