Some Thoughts on Glass Onion

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WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

It occurred to me as I was starting to draft this post, my first of 2023, that my first post of 2022 was about the Netflix film Don’t Look Up. Well, not about that movie so much as mentioning it in passing, but it still struck me as serendipitous—both because my first post this year is also about a Netflix property, but more significantly about another film featuring a satire on the figure of the genius tech billionaire.

Don’t Look Up, for those who don’t recall or never watched it, is a broad and profoundly unsubtle parable of climate change in which an asteroid’s imminent collision with Earth will be an extinction-level event. Rather than mobilize the globe behind a concerted effort to destroy or divert the asteroid, the American president and the media treat it, well, like they’ve treated climate change. Which is to say, with denial, deflection, and a minimization of the threat until it’s almost too late. And when they finally launch a salvo of ICBMs, the president aborts minutes after launch because of the intervention of Peter Isherwell—a genius tech billionaire played by Mark Rylance—whose engineers have discovered that the asteroid is chock full of extremely valuable minerals. Long spoiler short, Isherwell’s brilliant plan to fragment the asteroid into non-lethal but very harvestable bits fails and everyone on Earth dies.

Let’s stick a pin in that for a moment and turn to Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s second film featuring master detective Benoit Blanc, who is played once again with glorious aplomb by Daniel Craig. Two films in what I hope will become a prolific series aren’t enough to discern a thematic pattern just yet, but both Glass Onion and its predecessor Knives Out share the common premise of wealthy, entitled people being brought low by a young working-class woman—Anna de Armas in Knives Out, Janelle Monae in Glass Onion—with, of course, the assistance of Blanc and his gleeful scenery-chewing. If Knives Out was more generally a class warfare parable, Glass Onion is a broadside against the ostensible meritocracy of the “disruption” economy. The second film somehow manages to be at once less subtle and more nuanced in its critique: less subtle because billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) and his “Disruptors” are basically archetypes of the social media era1 and because Bron’s downfall at the film’s end is nakedly cathartic schadenfreude; more nuanced because of the film’s critical implications, which are what I want to tease out in this post.

The conceit at the center of the film, which is also its big reveal, is that genius tech billionaire Miles Bron not only isn’t a genius, he’s actively a moron.

As alluded above, this is a cathartic reveal. It is also a serendipitous one in the present moment, coming as it does in the midst of Elon Musk’s heel turn.2 One of the slowest, hardest lessons that we still haven’t entirely learned over the past several years (as this film dramatizes) is not to assume complexity of purpose and motive where there aren’t any; not to assume arcane subtlety of thought when stupidity, cupidity, and/or simple incompetence makes just as much sense. This indeed was the central fallacy of the conspiracy theories imagining Trump as a Russian asset, with Putin manipulating him in a byzantine web of intrigue; it is also the delusion at the heart of the 2020 election denial with its enormous ensemble of plotters that somehow linked the late Hugo Chavez to Italian military satellites and Dominion voting machines.

It is also the conceit at work in theories positing that what we see of Elon Musk’s actions at Twitter are merely glimpses of an otherwise invisible and massively complex game of four-dimensional chess, which we non-geniuses perceive as hapless floundering. I’ve now seen numerous such fantasies explicated in varyingly granular detail—some framed in awe of his brilliance, some as warnings of his Bond-villain plotting. But really, I have to think it’s all like the glass onion of Johnson’s film: a symbol of complexity that is, in actuality, transparent.

Trump was only a Russian asset insofar as he wanted to emulate Putin, which Putin knew would be bad for America. Accordingly, the Russians did their best to fuck with the election, but that was blunt-force action, not a labyrinth of intrigue. The 2020 election was, very simply, an election that voted out an historically unpopular president. And Elon Musk thought he could treat an irreducibly complex cultural and political morass as an engineering problem. In each case, people needed to see complexity instead of looking, as Daniel Craig’s detective Benoit Blanc suggests, “into the clear centre of this glass onion.”

A good murder mystery benefits from a great twist, a revelation that shocks the reader/audience all the more because it seems so obvious in hindsight. Agatha Christie was a master of this: she gave us mysteries in which, by turns, every suspect was guilty, none of them were, and in one instance—a twist that made my students genuinely angry on the one occasion I taught the novel in question—the narrator did it. What’s revelatory in Glass Onion isn’t the identity of the culprit, but his idiocy. By the time Benoit Blanc is doing the classic gather-the-suspects-in-the-library bit, his ensuing speech isn’t meant to reveal Miles Bron as the murderer, it’s to stall for time so Helen (Janelle Monae) can find the proof in his office they need. As Blanc rambles into increasing incoherence, drawing out his monologue as much as he can, he inadvertently finds his way to an epiphany,3 one that offends his sensibility as “the world’s greatest detective”:

His dock doesn’t float. His wonder fuel is a disaster. His grasp of disruption theory is remedial at best. He didn’t design the puzzle boxes. He didn’t write the mystery. Et voila! It all adds up. The key to this entire case. And it was staring me right in the face. Like everyone in the world, I assumed Miles Bron was a complicated genius. But why? Look into the clear centre of this glass onion. Miles Bron is an idiot!

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the most prominent tech billionaires aren’t nearly as moronic as Miles Bron is portrayed. After all, in the film Bron’s supposed genius is revealed to be entirely fabricated, the product of theft and systemic mendacity, to the point where it almost strains credulity that he could have successfully managed a multibillion dollar corporation. Almost! The point made over the course of the film is just how much of Bron’s success is predicated on other people’s vested interest in maintaining his mythos. A key scene at the beginning features Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), Bron’s chief engineer, in the midst of trying to salve the concerns of the board of directors. The board seems to be getting fidgety about their erratic CEO. Lionel makes a case we’ve heard made a lot in the past two decades: sure, Bron’s ideas seem out there, but that’s just his genius, his capacity for blue-sky thinking!

(I should pause to note how good Odom Jr.’s performance is: he communicates quite deftly, through his tone and facial expressions, how he’s papering over his own misgivings and making an argument he desperately needs to believe).

All of the people invited to his private island in a classic murder mystery setup—his “Disruptors,” as he fondly calls them (more on that momentarily)—are people who are beholden to Bron, and whom he needs to maintain the fiction of his genius.  The point of contention at the heart of the mystery is that Bron stole the work of his former partner Cassandra (Monae). When she sued, all the others perjured themselves in support of Bron because they’d needed to stay in his good graces, in part because he had become the principal patron in all their endeavours, but also because their own success had traded on Bron’s name and reputation for being a genius.

Ten years ago or so, Chris Hayes (of MSNBC fame) wrote Twilight of the Elites, a trenchant critique of the cultural tendency to understand meritocracy uncritically, as an invariably positive thing. As a general principle, Hayes observes, meritocracy doesn’t have much to quibble with: who seriously thinks that the best ideas, the strongest performances, the most talented people, shouldn’t be rewarded? The problem however is less with the principle itself than the conviction that it can be a self-sustaining system. Left unregulated, the libertarian ideal asserts, the best people, products, and ideas will inevitably excel and failure will be relegated, deservedly, to the dustbin of history. Interference in the pursuit of pure excellence—especially by the government—is a recipe for mediocrity and turgidity.

The unavoidable problem with this premise, Hayes points out, is that if your sole criterion is rewarding success—with minimal oversight—you inevitably reward cheating. He cites numerous examples, but the one I found most striking wasn’t in the book itself, but one that unfolded right at the time the book was published, and which Hayes cited in numerous interviews he gave. In late 2012, longstanding rumours about Lance Armstrong’s cheating came to a head. In January 2013, he gave the now-notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey in which he admitted to systematically doping. But as Hayes notes, it wasn’t just that Armstrong cheated pharmaceutically over a long period, but that he created circumstances in which he obliged everyone around him to be complicit—either by actively aiding him, by remaining silent, or, in the case of other cyclists on the American team, also doping in order to keep the team as a whole competitive. Once complicit, of course, it was in everyone’s self-interest in Armstrong’s orbit to perpetuate and maintain the fictions that sustained their livelihoods. What’s more, this cohort of self-interested insiders colluded to silence or suppress anyone seeking to expose the truth.

Hence, to my mind the most significant aspect of Glass Onion is not the broad parody of a billionaire who’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is or pretends to be; while the spectacle of Helen destroying the symbols of Bron’s wealth and excess that ends the film is profoundly cathartic, it perhaps obscures to some extent the culpability of Bron’s enablers. Helen’s rage, after all, is elicited not just by Bron’s successful destruction of the evidence that would have exposed him, but by the complicity—again!—of his “Disruptors,” who shamefacedly accede to continue lying for him, in spite of the fact that they now know he has murdered two of their number.

In the end, Glass Onion is about the fallacy of disruption. Bron’s Disruptors are as much disruptors as Bron is a genius: he flatters them outrageously in turn to Blanc at one point, enumerating the ways each supposedly acts as a productive chaos agent in their respective fields, but when push comes to shove disruption is the last thing they want—having built wealth and power, their interest is in consolidating and expanding it. This indeed is Silicon Valley writ small: Mark Zuckerberg’s motto might be “Move fast and break things,” but even an indifferent observer will note that it has been a very long time since he has broken anything or moved very fast or very far. It is perhaps ironic that in the current tech landscape, dominated by billionaires and corporate giants, the true disruptors are governmental figures like Elizabeth Warren–those who are quite vocal in their determination to disrupt such tech monopolies as Amazon and Facebook (sorry—Meta) and break them up into smaller, more competitive chunks.

It is however heartening the difference a year makes when comparing Miles Bron to Peter Isherwell of Don’t Look Up. Even just a year ago, the central conceit of an idiot billionaire wouldn’t have felt quite as on the nose. Indeed, Mark Rylance’s performance in Don’t Look Up is more consonant with the general assumptions of the past two decades: his portrayal of Isherwell is that of a genius, self-absorbed and arrogant to the point of sociopathy, but a genius nonetheless. Miles Bron, by contrast, is uncannily apposite to a moment when a critical mass of tech industry fuckery has (finally) called into question unexamined assumptions of tech genius: Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse obsession and Facebook’s massive value loss; Sam Bankman-Fried’s detonation of crypto currency futures through the simple expedient of colossal financial incompetence; Elizabeth Holmes’ guilty verdict; Peter Thiel’s real-time transformation into comic-book villainy; and of course Elon Musk’s ongoing Twitter meltdown; cumulatively, these and similar misadventures cannot help but make plain something that never should have been far from the collective understanding: that talent, brilliance, and genius in one area not only don’t necessarily indicate capability in others, but that they hardly ever do. Pair this slowly creeping realization with the obvious, observable ways social media and digital culture polarize and factionalize people, and it’s hard to take seriously the persistent techno-utopianism of the Silicon Valley set.

It will however be difficult for many to let go of that mythos, not least because the entire industry is deeply invested in propagating it. It is telling that one of the funniest and most cited moments of the film is when Birdie (Kate Hudson) still struggles to see genius in Bron’s idiocy. “It’s so dumb,” says Blanc, disgustedly. “So dumb it’s … brilliant!” Birdie breathes. “NO!” thunders Blanc. “It’s just dumb!”

NOTES

1. There’s Birdie (Kate Hudson) a fashion icon turned influencer whose constant inadvertently racist gaffes on social media have become part of her brand; Claire (Kathryn Hahn), a liberal-ish politician whose progressive bona fides coexist uneasily with her indebtedness to Bron; Lionel (Leslie Odom Jr.), the engineer largely tasked with realizing Bron’s ideas, which come in varying shades of whackadoodle; Duke (Dave Bautista) a masculinity guru and men’s rights influencer; and Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) Duke’s girlfriend and arm candy who is herself an influencer with political ambitions, and who might be the smartest of the group. Rounding out the group but not part of it is Peg (Jessica Henwick), Birdie’s long-suffering assistant who has possibly the funniest moment in the entire film.

2. In numerous interviews, Rian Johnson has pushed back against the assumption that Miles Bron is a one-to-one analogue for Elon Musk, pointing out that he wrote the screenplay in 2020 and shooting wrapped well before Musk broke cover from Tesla and SpaceX and fully displayed his inner twelve-year-old in his fraught takeover of Twitter. Miles Bron, Johnson maintains, was written as an amalgam; it was just happy (or awkward) coincidence that the film’s release coincided with the escalation of the Twitter saga.

3. As Blanc fumbled his way to his epiphany, I could not help but remember all the times I’ve under-prepared for a lecture and felt myself start to go off the rails, only to inadvertently work out something in the midst of my rambling that reveals something about the topic that hadn’t before occurred to me. I wasn’t sure whether this part made me feel attacked or seen.

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