Q&A: David Sirota | Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank


Don’t Look Up is a film about climate change, but there are some striking parallels to the pandemic. How do these two crises overlap?

Whether it’s climate change or the pandemic, the film speaks to our reluctance to accept and act constructively on basic science. Plenty of evidence shows that we simply refuse to accept and act on the science of climate change. There have also been times during the pandemic when it felt the same way – for example, with the mask and vaccine policies.

I think we’re caught up in a culture that’s hostile to inconvenient facts, especially if it might require some sort of behavioral change, like asking the rich and powerful to sacrifice privileges or change their ways.

Profiteering is clearly embedded in much of the discourse and politics as it relates to the pandemic, particularly vaccine patents. The pandemic has been a way for big pharma to make huge sums of money. It was arguably a huge success for them – and let’s be clear, the vaccines were developed with a lot of public funding.

So the Covid vaccine is not just a success story in the open market. The hostility to making vaccines more widely available and cheaper is reminiscent of the Don’t Look Up storyline when the tech mogul sees the comet crisis as a way to make more money.

And that’s a huge problem next to this hostility to basic science.

Your film made a powerful, and often hilarious, critique of the corporate media. Why is it important to satirize how the American media covers serious issues?

The way the media frame and divert attention from important issues is a big part of why our government doesn’t feel the need to take these issues seriously. Democracy is based on the idea that an informed public will demand that its government do rational things.

Part of having an informed electorate is a news media. I don’t think we have a medium that really does a very good job of informing in a constructive way.

One of the missions of the film is to hold up a mirror to that and say, look, the information ecosystem that surrounds us all is part of why our government is so dysfunctional. Government leaders do not feel the need to act rationally or take science seriously if they know their constituents are not well informed.

At one point, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr. Mindy, begins to corrupt himself after debuting as a scientist bent on saving humanity. What were you trying to convey there?

Kate Dibiasky (a PhD student played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr. Mindy represent two parts of the human brain. Kate represents the part that is brutally honest, sees a dysfunctional system, tries to sound the alarm, then gets frustrated and basically gives up.

Part of the malfunction of the system is that it offers all sorts of incentives to keep people quiet

Dr. Mindy sees the same science and tries to make this dysfunctional system work. And part of the malfunction of the system is that it provides all sorts of incentives for the people on the inside to, if not shut up, at least get along.

So, for a while, he tries to push the boat without tipping it. He’s basically trying to have his cake and eat it – getting fame, fame and stardom while trying to do the right thing. And then he realizes that it is a false choice. It’s impossible.

As someone originally from Indiana, I enjoyed the time when Dr. Mindy and Kate Dibiasky were sent “off the grid,” meaning they simply returned to their hometown in the American Midwest. Was it a commentary on how large swaths of the country are shunned by urban elites?

There were two jokes about it – the one you’re describing and also the White House joke where Jonah Hill’s character looks up to them for being from Michigan State and kind of mocks the idea that a public research university would be as good as Ivy League schools.

What we were trying to poke fun at was both the general disdain that Washington elites have for the rest of the country and the disdain that fake Trump-style populists have for the middle of the country, the kind of people that they claim to represent.

When Dr. Mindy and Kate Dibiasky return to Michigan at the end of the film, the scenes there seem much more normal and rational than anything in Washington. There’s an underlying comment that Washington is the place that’s teeming with lunatics. Everyday workplaces in this country are not perfect, but they are much more normal and rational.

What do you hope the public will take away from this idea that big tech “saves” us?

I hope the idea that technology saves us will be ridiculous

I hope the idea that technology saves us will be ridiculous. The billionaires and tech triumphalists are not coming to save us; we will have to save ourselves.

The film is skeptical that the pursuit of profit can provide solutions to crises. He challenges this false religion that says billionaires can profit and solve the problems that billionaires create.

I think it’s an idea billionaires have created to support the status quo and prevent any drastic action that needs to be taken on so many things – whether it’s the climate crisis or, here in the US, the healthcare crisis health. Whatever the crisis, a wealthy elite cadre always says, “We can solve the problem and not restructure society and not ask any billionaire or oligarch to sacrifice anything.

At some point, that’s wrong, and a lot of the choices are zero-sum choices. Either we will solve the problem, and the very rich people will have to change or sacrifice a little; or we’re not going to solve the problem, and people who have wealth and power will continue to accumulate wealth and power while everyone else is suffering.

Did anything surprise you about the response to the film?

One interesting thing was that a lot of people across the political spectrum really liked our movie. There was this expectation among film critics that only liberals would like it. But the comments we received and the size of the audience suggest that people from all political backgrounds enjoyed it.

I think it’s because the film expressed some undeniable truths about the information ecosystem in our society. We have a problem with political dysfunction, corruption and dysfunctional media.

One final thing that thrilled me was how the demand and support for the film showed that audiences don’t need to be infantilized and that there is a pent up demand for content that struggles with questions and important, frightening and controversial issues.

I hope one of the legacies of the film is that the content creation industry looks at this and says, “We don’t have to infantilize our audience with stories from the distant past or stories fantastic things that have nothing to do with the here and now. The public wants cultural products that make us think.

It is my hope.


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