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Don’t Look Up: Who are the characters based on?


After Earth Day 2022, we take a look at the allegory and representation of 2021 climate satire Don’t Look Up

Amid continuous reminders of climate change in the world, The London Centrust is revisiting last year’s climate change satire and the second most watched movie on Netflix: Don’t Look Up.

A month after climate activist Wynn Bruce of Boulder, Colorado set himself afire with flames outside the US Supreme Court in Washington D.C., climate change is on the precipice of people’s minds more than ever. 

In Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay’s 2021 satirical end-of-the-world movie, social commentary meets comedy in a depressingly realistic allegory of climate change. 

The Netflix Original sees Leonardo DiCaprio’s Astronomy Professor Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence’s PhD student Kate Diabiasky battle politicians and the media as they try to tell the world about an approaching comet that threatens all life on Earth.

Beginning in an attention-grabbing opening sequence about the discovery of a comet by Michigan State’s Diabiasky, the film takes a huge turn into satirical darkness when the scientists enter the world of DC power and Streep’s President Orlean and other characters are introduced.

Featuring Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, and Timothee Chalamet, the star-studded cast share 41 oscar nominations between them – and represent the Hollywood elite they parody in the film. 

But as well as featuring famous actors, the characters in this fictional doomsday spoof also exhibit many real-life influences through obvious parodies, subtle historical references and nuanced quirks. 

Read below as The London Centrist takes you through suspected character inspirations in Don’t Look Up

Meryl Streep’s President Orlean

When the audience first catches sight of Streep’s blonde female potus cloaked in trouser suits, she physically resembles Hillary Rodham Clinton, the woman who lost to Trump in the 2016 presidential election. However, the more screen time Orlean gets, the more references are made to several recent presidents. 

Her exposed smoking habit is a reference to Obama’s best-kept secret, with a joke played on how smoking made Orlean seem closer to the people, whereas Obama kept his guilty pleasure tucked away in his elite circle. This eliteness is further explored in the celebrity obsession Streep’s president has, with the Oval Office littered with photos of famous friends. This alludes to Obama family’s oft-remarked ‘social climbing’ and preoccupation with America’s upper middle class.

The photo of her hugging Bill Clinton, and their folksy similarities also add weight behind the argument that Orlean’s sexual deviance is inspired by Clinton’s Lewinsky legacy. And her scandal of being a Playboy centerfold plays on Republican Senator Scott Brown, the man who won Ted Kennedy’s seat after his death in 2009 in spite of his nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan

Additionally, President Orlean’s topical nomination of Sheriff Conlon to the Supreme Court , which in the film delays DiCaprio’s Randall Mindy and Lawrence’s Kate Dibiasky Oval Office meeting, is a hark back to George W. Bush’s nomination of career politician Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court in 2005.

And in a priceless piece of satire, Orlean’s announcement of ‘Mission American Savior’ atop a destroyer ship not only ridicules over-the-top Americanism, but also reminds us of Bush’s regrettable speech in which he claimed the Afghanistan War was a ‘Mission Accomplished’.

But as the film progresses it is clear that the figure Streep’s POTUS most clearly emulates is the orange-tinged ebullient former President: Donald Trump. As the third act of the movie comes into play, and America is divided into ‘Look Uppers’ and ‘Don’t Look Uppers’, we see the obvious references to Trump’s MAGA supporters. In red sloganed caps, patriotic outfits and carrying torches of fire, Orlean’s latest publicity stunt mirrors Trump rallies of the 2016 and 2020 election cycles. With the lampooning of science, focus on politics over policy, and genius capturing of the silent majority of America, it is clear that Trump is the prime influence behind this character. 

Jonah Hill’s Jason Orlean

In Don’t Look Up, Jason Orlean is portrayed as ignorant, rude and elitist, aided into satire by Hill’s comedic wit. And just as Trump inspired President Orlean, his children seem to have inspired Jason Orlean. The son of the President of this fictional America is also Chief of Staff in this White House administration. 

Whilst touching on general themes of nepotism and the elite, the overall picture is painted that Orlean Jr. represents elements of Trump’s daughter and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner and his wife were seen in the former administration as ‘de facto’ Chief of Staffs and controlled much of Trump’s early decision-making as close confidantes. 

Jared Kushner was appointed to oversee much of the country’s federal response to the Covid-19 pandemic, despite his lack of experience in medical or health sectors especially pandemics and viruses. Kushner’s team allegedly delayed national responses due to the virus hitting Democratic ‘blue’ states, and therefore not making ‘political sense’.

This blatant ignorance in the face of death and destruction could have played a huge part in the inspiration behind Hill’s Orlean who makes jokes right up until the end of world in Don’t Look Up.

Mark Rylance’s Peter Isherwell

Peter Isherwell, the film’s manipulative and calculating villain is brilliantly played by Mark Rylance. When he first appears, dressed in a polo-neck and promoting his telephone company BASH, the air of Steve Jobs is immediately apparent. Everything from the premise of the company, to its creative advert and cult-like fans, mirrored the early days of Apple Inc. 

However, Isherwell, whose career is deeply intertwined into Republican politics through his campaign funding, later reveals his plans to use drones to separate the comet into non-Earth-threatening chunks and mine them for rare minerals. It is here that an obvious play on Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is made. Isherwell’s chilly presence and mad plan to save the world is especially reminiscent of Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. 

And whilst Isherwell represents a blend of ultra-rich Silicon Valley CEOs and tech gurus, his soft-spoken obliviousness even gives a hint of Mark Zuckernberg, whose platform Facebook has, just like BASH, undoubtedly doomed mankind, just in a smaller, subtler way. 

Ariana Grande’s Riley Bina

Grande’s Riley Bina is a hilarious, yet irritating play on herself as well as celebrity culture in general. Looking like a caricature of herself in tiny, tight leather clothing, glued to her mobile and surrounded by a posse of followers, the mix of 2000s and 2020s references are too much to handle. 

Along with Scott Mescudi’s (Kid Cudi) DJ Chello, Bina’s love interest, the two parody the invasive public interest in celebrities’ private dating lives. With singers, actors and even politicians’ dating life as much a part of their persona as their talents in real life, this is shown with frustrating obviousness as the media and audiences prioritise it over ‘real news’ about the comet. 

Cate Blanchett’s Brie Evantee

Blonde, caked in make-up and airbrushed to the max, Cate Blanchett’s Brie Evantee represents the media persona of someone who spins everything until bad news is good news and good news is fantastic – at least for the target audience. 

Whilst her dumbed down intelligence has drawn comparisons to MSNBC Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski, McKay has denied this in an interview with Vanity Fair. The character co-hosts ‘The Daily Rip’ alongside Tyler Perry’s Jack Bremmer, and represents the typical fake it til you make it people that battle each other for top place in Washington DC. 

This plays well alongside Michael Chikilis’ appearance as a far-right presenter ignoring the comet about to land on his head, paralleling any Fox News presenter who has ever denied climate change. 

Adam McKay also admitted that the film’s New York Herald is a satire of The New York Times, and their hiring of climate change denier Bret Stephens. 

Erik Parillo’s Sheriff Conlon

Early on in the film the Oval Office meeting to discuss the approaching comet is delayed as Orlean’s administration is embroiled in a political crisis over their nomination of Sheriff Colon to the Supreme Court who appears to be one of the POTUS’ romantic flings. 

As well as representing Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme court in 2005, Sheriff Conlon also appears to be based on Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The controversial sheriff of Maricopa County attracted numerous accusations of abuse of power, misuse of funds, politically motivated investigations and the targeting of Latin communities to look for undocumented immigrants. Arpaio, who was told to stop racial profiling through immigration patrols by a court and was held in contempt for refusing to do so, was pardoned by Trump shortly after.

Whilst a minor character, the Sheriff represents the presidential overreach that can be possible without enough media and Congressional oversight, and the political scandals that still go on today across America. 

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