The political world of Jon Stewart

Is the new film Rosewater the antidote to Argo? Stewart and actor Gael Garcia Bernal talk politics.
By: /
November 13, 2014
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There has been a fair amount of ink spilled lately considering whether British comic Russell Brand’s brand of political activism is worthy of attention.

The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti said reading Brand’s new book, Revolution, is “like being trapped in an elevator with a coke-head undergrad who’s just finished the collected works of Noam Chomsky.” The Independent reported that Brand has had a “more negative impact on politics than any other celebrity.” It’s the kind of backlash that might come easily to a comic, lacking credibility on serious topics, who comes out with such a loud call for a new world order.

This kind of criticism will never be levied against Jon Stewart, the American comic whom The New York Times once suggested was possibly the most trusted man in America.

While Brand’s foray into global issues has been lambasted in the press, Stewart’s new film, Rosewater — his directorial debut, and a drama no less — has been mostly praised, or, at its worst, has been deemed a film that will not change the world “but it won’t make it worse, either.”

That’s a credit to Stewart, who, thanks to his biting commentary and interviews on The Daily Show, is far and away the comic with the most political credibility in North America, and likely within the English-speaking world.

When Stewart spoke to a handful of writers about Rosewater at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he had the small group in stitches the moment he walked through the doors, mocking the size of the audio recorders placed at his end of the table.

“OK, that is from the Pentagon. Holy s--t, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said, breaking into a smoky, rough voice: “Back when I was a kid, there was a dinosaur bird and he would type out various hieroglyphics…”

Comedy is very much part of Stewart’s political world. But, to be clear, it is a political world first and foremost.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then Rosewater, which opens in cinemas on Nov. 14, has more comical moments than you might expect for a film that tells the story of Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari and the 118 days he spent in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison in 2009.

From the early moments when Iranian police interrogate Bahari, played by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, asking him if his Sopranos DVDs are in fact porn, to a scene at the height of Bahari’s anguish in solitary confinement when he dances joyfully, alone in his cell, to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love — the film is full of a certain lightness.

Stewart says he cannot take full credit for the tone of the film, however, as it was an interpretation of Bahari’s book, Then They Came For Me, and both the film and the book in turn were reflections of the ups and downs of Bahari’s real experience.

“So much of the way that Maziar reclaimed his humanity under this circumstance was to take what is uniquely sort of human — that is humour and absurdity — and being able to recognize that… because the whole idea of solitary [confinement] is to deprive you of your senses and so you have to manufacture that to some extent,” Stewart said.

“So trying to bring in all those elements to show the fullness of experience was a lot of the challenge. And to not turn absurdity into farce and to not diminish his experience by leaning too heavily on that.”

Those moments, so absurd they bordered on farce, were real: Bahari’s interrogator (played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia) used a clip of The Daily Show’s Jason Jones interviewing Bahari, as evidence of that Bahari might be a spy. In it, Jones, playing to character, introduces himself as a spy.

“He is a comedian pretending to be a spy,” Garcia Bernal, as Bahari, explains, in a line in the film.

“So can you tell me why American pretending to be a spy has chosen to interview you?” the interrogator asks.

“And why would a real spy have a TV show?” Garcia Bernal rebuttals.

If it is not yet obvious, Stewart wrote the film's screenplay as well.

That layer of meta — when his show’s content was directly involved with the plot itself — was part of the incentive, partly out of guilt and partly out of the personal connection, for Stewart’s involvement in the project.

But it also makes a strong case for the intersection of popular culture, journalism and foreign policy. One is not always removed from the other.

“Yeah, there was that moment of like ‘My God, the power of The Daily Show got three men arrested. I must make this right,’” Stewart said. “But… the guilt was an utterly minor and trivial focus. What the real focus was, was the universality of the story and the nuance and the passion and family aspect that Maziar was able to bring to the memoir. That’s what was intriguing about it.”

Garcia Bernal explained to OpenCanada, also in an interview at TIFF in September, what makes Stewart such a sharp analyst of foreign policy:

“Jon, every day with what he calls topical, ephemeral humour, he deconstructs the narrative… and shows things that nobody dares show,” Garcia Bernal said.

“What I like about this movie is, it is not Argo. It is not about showing how f---ing cool the West is. I mean this is not about who is cool and who isn’t at all. Actually, Argo could have been a comedy, really. This film, really, it is not about Iran specifically. It is about something that is happening everywhere, and I like that about this film because it’s not Jon’s intention to overthrow the Islamic Republic.”

But while the film might not be making a political statement per se, in general, Stewart’s brand of political engagement has become influential, even outside North America.

“There are many people that have been inspired by The Daily Show in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East and especially in Egypt,” Garcia Bernal said.

“I mean Jon says ‘I do this and I have fun, but I live in Manhattan and I get away with it.’ But there are people that are doing this, putting their bodies on the line and there is a Farsi guy that does it, there is an Egyptian guy. They do something like The Daily Show in a place where really you cannot laugh because there are lashes coming.

“So, I’m a big admirer of Jon’s work and what he does. But I mean he is not the only one of course.”

Stewart, in other words, may not be leading the call for a new world order, but he is certainly part of a revolution bringing comedy into politics; a revolution worth noting for the Russell Brands of the world.