White Noise: This Satire Is Relevant As Ever

(L-R) Greta Gerwig (Babette), May Nivola (Steffie), Adam Driver (Jack), Samuel Nivola (Heinrich) and Raffey Cassidy (Denise) in White Noise. Photo credit: Wilson Webb/NETFLIX © 2022.

Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Noah Baumbach takes a break from original works in adapting White Noise for the screen.

For the first time in his filmmaker career, Baumbach wasn’t sure what he would film after the release of Marriage Story. As we all know, most of the world went into lockdown shortly after the Academy Awards ceremony in early 2020. During this time, Baumbach decided to revisit Don DeLillo’s novel and it spoke to him in the moment. The end result is his newest collaboration with both Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig. Gerwig makes her return to the front of a camera for the first time since 2016. This time around, the filmmaker gets to direct Don Cheadle for the first time.

It’s interesting to see which projects are speaking to filmmakers during the pandemic. Some of them have revisited their childhoods (Kenneth Branagh, Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes) and reflected that in their work. While this film isn’t Baumbach putting his childhood on screen, the book meant something to him during his college years. After re-reading the book following his father’s passing, it only seems natural that he would make it his next project. Speaking of Spielberg, the film is set during the 1980s and the imagery of the toxic airborne event reminds me of images in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are things in this film that you don’t typically get in a Noah Baumbach film, too!

White Noise tackles themes that include mass hysteria, religion, consumerism, fearing death, and academic satire. Much like the book, Baumbach breaks the film down into three acts: “Waves and Radiation,” “The Airborne Toxic Event” and “Dylarama. Have you ever had a college professor act like they’re a rock star? Well, Jack (Adam Driver) and Murray (Don Cheadle) come off like academic rock stars and are featured in one of the best scenes of the year. Jack teaches about Hitler studies while Murray teaches about Elvis. These are two historical figures that couldn’t be more different and yet there’s a rhythm and a dance to the writing and editing of the scene. It’s like the dueling pianos except Driver and Cheadle portray dueling professors.

Away from the college, Jack lives with fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their children. Babette is taking a mysterious drug for reasons that we’ll learn about later. However, the side effects are causing their children to worry about her because she’s forgetting things. While the first act seems mundane with family and work challenges, it reaches full-on hysteria during the second act when a spillage disaster and toxic plume cloud forces an evacuation. It’s almost acting like a pandemic in its own right. Characters are fearing for their lives and then placed into quarantine upon heading to the evacuation shelters. The third act gets into the fallout of what just happened but there’s a scene with a nun that had me going WTF over the language coming out of her mouth. I won’t give anything away because my jaw dropped at the time.

In theory, it’s possible to update the book for a present-day time. However, I think it works best in its original time period because the social media screens tend to get dated rather quickly. Plus, it’s just awesome getting to see 1980s hairstyles, wardrobes, and classic logos when characters are at the supermarket. Let me say this: the product placement never takes you out of the film. Oh, the nostalgia!

Visually speaking, the film is shot on 35mm film with anamorphic lenses. The filmmaker teams up with cinematographer Lol Crawley for the first time in his career. Where some filmmakers might opt for visual effects, Baumbach goes after the real deal including the train crash at the end of the first act. Regardless, there’s some stylish work as the film shifts in tone in the different acts.

I cannot say enough good things about Jess Gonchor’s production design! It’s award-worthy. For the most part, sections of Ohio become 1985 again. Who know that an empty Home Depot would make for a beautifully designed supermarket?!? Also, you’re gonna want to stay through the credits for a choreographed dance number that accompanies “new body rhumba” by LCD Soundsystem. This may just be the most interesting end credits of the year. It’s not just a sequence that plays briefly before the credits take over but it lasts through the very end of the credits. You’ll want to watch the sequence in full before paying attention to the credits themselves.

The film’s sound design also gets some applause from over here. I mean, you cannot do a film about white noise without having noise playing in the background. There is a TV set featured throughout the film and there’s almost something on, for better or worse. Beyond this, Baumbach pairs up with legendary film composer Danny Elfman for the first time in his career. During an exclusive Critics Choice Association press conference, Elfman discussed his composing style for the film. White Noise is among the rare films in his 100+ film career in which the composer started scoring before watching the director’s cut of the film. Anyway, Elfman’s score is very much 80s-influenced with a mixture of orchestral and electronic music.

Even though White Noise features elements of action and huge crowd scenes, the film never feels like it’s too big in scale. Baumbach still focuses in on the elements that have made his films such a success throughout his career. While its source material is nearly 40 years old, White Noise feels as relevant as ever with what the film has to say.

CAST: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle, Raffey Cassidy, Sam Nivola, May Nivola, Jodie Turner-Smith, André L. Benjamin, Sam Gold, Carlos Jacott, Lars Eidinger, Francis Jue, Barbara Sukowa

White Noise held its North American Premiere during the 2022 New York Film Festival in the Main Slate program. Netflix will release the film in select theaters on November 25, 2022 and streaming on December 30, 2022. Grade: 4/5

Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.