EXCLUSIVE: Jon Stewart's Salon interview: Humanizing torturers, our dysfunctional politics, and why we view our political enemies as X-Men

"Daily Show" host tells Salon about Islam, nuance, his new film, and seeing Iranian kids impersonate his TV persona

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published November 12, 2014 5:45PM (EST)

Jon Stewart          (AP/Victoria Will)
Jon Stewart (AP/Victoria Will)

Jon Stewart has been on something of a roll lately, and in the brief time I got to spend with him in a Manhattan hotel suite last week, he seemed full to the brim with coffee-cup goodness and confidence. Time-travel backward a year or so, and you might have felt that Stewart had become the uncontroversial “safe zone” for liberal opinions on TV. He wasn’t quite as bracing or as funny as his onetime employee Stephen Colbert, and he wasn’t as abrasive or provocative as Bill Maher. But if Stewart was plotting a reinvention or a comeback – without ever having gone away – then here it is. In recent weeks he’s been savaging the Republican Party’s mendacious politics, President Obama’s slide back into war and the uninformed stupor of the general population with equal vigor on “The Daily Show,” while doing numerous interviews to support his film “Rosewater,” which premiered at Cannes last spring and reaches theaters this week.

Stewart is well aware that he’s painted a target on his own chest with “Rosewater,” which is well-intentioned, humane and often compelling, but also sometimes feels like a movie directed by a television host. If critics want to take their shots, he says, then fire away. “Rosewater” tells the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist (and friend of Stewart’s) who was detained by the Iranian secret police and imprisoned for 118 days while covering Iran’s contested 2009 presidential election for Newsweek. What Bahari went through was appalling, without doubt: He was isolated, repeatedly interrogated and subjected to both physical and psychological torture, and coerced into a propaganda broadcast in which he “confessed” to working as a Western spy and trying to incite anti-Islamic rebellion. And no one can or should defend the Iranian government’s atrocious record on human rights and press freedom.

But none of that is exactly breaking news, and it’s legitimate to wonder why Stewart wants to tell this story five years later, and in this peculiar fashion. Sometimes “Rosewater” feels like a docudrama, integrating snippets of actual news footage from the street protests that threw Tehran into chaos after the controversial (and possibly rigged) 2009 reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At other times it feels like a heavily fictionalized Hollywood movie that’s abandoned all efforts at verisimilitude, or an episode of “24” made by a liberal. The international cast speaks in a nonspecific “Middle Eastern” English, and neither of the principal actors comes from within 2,000 miles of Iran. Bahari is played by Mexican star Gael García Bernal, and his alternately intimidating and pathetic interrogator, known only by the code name Rosewater, by Danish actor Kim Bodnia.

Bahari says that Stewart originally proposed making the movie in Farsi, with a cast of Iranian expatriates, but that he encouraged Stewart to think of the project as a mass-market infotainment primarily aimed at North American viewers. Personally, I might rather see the more “authentic” version of that story, but Stewart’s defense of the “considered inauthenticity” of this version is so frank and non-defensive that I was about half convinced. Among other things, there’s no reason for an American comedian, who is not an expert on Iran and does not speak the language, to compete with the broad and varied tradition of Iranian cinema that continues to thrive both at home and in exile. If you’re a scholar of Middle Eastern studies or an Iranian émigré, Stewart agrees, you’re likely to find this movie pretty simplistic.

It’s easier for American viewers to understand both Bahari and his torturer as human beings trapped in a bad situation, Stewart argues, if the context is more generic. Rosewater does despicable things, but we also see him having apologetic phone conversations with his wife and being hectored by his supervisor; ultimately, his prurient obsession with the specific details of Bahari’s decadent lifestyle in the West prove to be his undoing. He pretends to be a worldly man but has never heard of “The Sopranos” or Leonard Cohen. (The first is porn, the second Zionist propaganda.) Beyond that, Stewart’s real point in “Rosewater,” as we discussed, may be to drop a few broad hints about the nature of our own society and government, which may not be as totally different from the Iranian regime as we would like to think.

We got to that eventually, but only after Stewart had coaxed me into several minutes of disco reminiscence and Google searching, sparked by his impromptu rendition of a ‘70s hit we both thought was by Minnie Riperton. (It wasn’t. I believe now that it was “Love on a Two-Way Street” by the Moments.)

I understand that in addition to being a film director, you also do something on television. Some little show?

I work with a fellow named Captain Kangaroo. We try and teach children how to read. And it's really about the children. Isn't it always really about the children?

That's my single favorite thing about “The Simpsons.” The lady who always says that in every moment of crisis. “Why doesn’t anyone think of the children?”

I believe the children are our future. If we teach them well, we will let them lead the way!

I’m sure we could spend this whole time dredging up disco hits and ancient pop-culture memes [Stewart nods vigorously], but let me ask you something about "Rosewater," which is the obvious question. What happened to Maziar Bahari is a really interesting story and all, but let’s face it: The Iranian regime is kind of a soft target. Nobody in the United States is going to stand up and say, "You know what, Stewart? You're giving those guys a bad break."

Um, nope. But there may be people that stand up and say, "You're giving them too good a break." And that you're portraying them in a manner that is slightly less didactic than it should be.

OK. Well, I appreciated the fact that even though you couldn’t call Rosewater sympathetic, he’s presented as a human being. That was a deliberate choice.

Yes. Very much so. That was important for many different reasons. One is, they are human beings. So why not present them as such? You know, they're not the X-Men. They're not monsters, and if you're going to battle something effectively, then to see it in a ... We have a tendency in this country, whether it be Ebola or ISIS, that whatever is the new threat becomes the new super-threat. It's not a bug, it's a superbug! It's not a predator, it's a super-predator! It's this thing ... We can't bring prisoners from Guantánamo here because, for God's sake, Magneto could break out of that cell. And what are we going to do then? They'll wreak havoc throughout the land!

So it's important to remember that this is a human situation, that they have created a bureaucratic regime of torturers who view revolutions as overtime, as opposed to monsters who are there doing things viciously, you know. One of the reasons Maziar had to wear a blindfold was not to disorient him, even though it had that effect, but so that the torturer doesn't have to look into your eyes while he's beating the hell out of you. And realize, “Oh, right, you're human too.”

The general conversation between Iran and America has been this: “You are the axis of evil!” “Well, you're the great Satan!” So the bar has been set relatively low as far as nuance goes. More importantly, I wanted to portray not so much even his interrogator in that way, but that element of Iranian society, those kids and that [anti-Ahmadinejad, pro-democracy] movement as something that Westerners might look at and go, Oh, you know, I had a sense of this culture as monolithic, but that's very relatable. And it's not exaggerated, it's not unreal. That's what is there.

Obviously you did not personally go to Iran to make this movie or do research. You had Maziar’s experience. But what kind of input were you able to get from people in Iran, or people who understood Iran?

Well, we had -- Jason and Tim had been there. [Meaning “Daily Show” correspondent Jason Jones and producer Tim Greenberg.] So we had a great deal of background. You know, one of the most mind-blowing things about those pieces was when we were over there in 2009, they were talking to the young kids who had the green ribbons on, and they were all fired up. One of the kids says to Jason as he's interviewing him, "You're from 'The Daily Show.'" And he's like, “Huh?” And then he goes, "Jon Stewart." And he turns to the camera, and he goes, "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh," and does the imitation of George W. Bush that I used to do on the show. And we all watched that and like got a little like, maudlin, got a little teary, like: Oh my God, like, we have this view of this place that's so removed from the reality of the day. Having Maziar there, though, was the real touchstone of it all. Because he had lived it, he had been through it, he had been raised there, and he was able more than anybody to help demonstrate the complexities and nuances of the culture and society.

It seems like trying to capture complexity and nuance in a way that is popular and accessible is a core value for you. I don’t know if that’s gotten any easier lately. I would not say our culture is big on those things.

No. God, no. And also, like with this film I have the caveat of knowing that it will be simplistic and reductive to people who live in Iran. You know whatever I think I can do there, I'm not Farhadi [Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning director of “A Separation”]. I can't create an Iranian masterpiece out of this situation. I don't have that ear. So I had to own my inauthenticity, as well. And not try and fake it. That's why, you know, the accents in the film are a strange mélange of nothing. It’s vaguely Iranian, but not pegged to anything, because I wouldn't have been able to direct that. My ear's not attuned to that. So I wanted to create kind of palettes that were -- not innocuous, but bland enough that the audience could easily dismiss them and involve themselves in the story. Because the story itself is also hopefully more universal, and can't be dismissed as the eccentricities of one oppressive regime.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that next. I think the reviews have been fairly friendly so far, but I’ve heard some grumbling on social media about how you cast two actors who are not Iranian, and not anything close to Iranian, in the leading roles. Some people will feel that you’ve dumbed down this situation too much, that you’re pitching it to the stupidity or ignorance of the American viewer.

Um, I mean, I can't say that it's not legitimate. Like I said, especially if you are Iranian, this is more simplistic. I’m not sure you can say that any medium represents reality. Maziar's memoir is an impression of his time in prison. This film is an impression of his impression. So we're already twice removed from reality. But hopefully within that we get at some truth. And hopefully that's the object, is to tell the story with enough integrity that you're able to expose something truthful on a universal level, while certainly not adhering to that rigid vision of reality, if that makes sense. But if somebody says that, if that is how they feel, I would not say to them, you know, "That's an illegitimate thing to say." I definitely get that.

But it was a conscious choice, you know. Once I had Golshifteh and Shohreh [Golshifteh Farahani and Shohreh Aghdashloo, prominent Iranian expatriate actresses], I felt like, you know, the women in the story are so powerful, and that gave us the strength to then go universal, to try and portray this story in a way that makes it more relatable. But again, I’m owning a quiet inauthenticity.

Right. You’re telling an approximation of a true story that happened in a real place. Are you also trying to provoke the American viewer toward a moment of reflection? This is a story about a detainee who is arrested for no valid reason and subjected to torture. You happen to live in a country that has detained and tortured people in the very recent past.

No question. And a country that holds people in solitary confinement. And puts inordinate amount of pressure on journalists to write stories that they want, as opposed to the stories that they fear. And again, seeing it as ... it's not a question of wanting the audience to get it, but I can tell you what the intention is. The intention is to show the unsustainability of these types of apparatuses that are built within states to suppress their people and information, the idea being that the damage that is done to the state and to the people, from the building and sustaining and maintaining of these apparatuses, is far greater than any damage that could have been done by a piece of information that could come out. And that it's a projection not of strength but of weakness.

That's why, ultimately, and as ridiculous as it sounds, this is a film that is optimistic. It's the reason why I made narrative choices for the audience viscerally. I never left the prison once Maziar got there. You know, there's a different version of this film where Maziar is in solitary confinement and then we cut away to his wife or his mother working on his behalf. I very much wanted to see how far we could push the audience's discomfort at this claustrophobia, at this isolation, so that when the windows and curtains are opened again for Maziar, the audience gets just a small sliver of that feeling of, “Oh right, not forgotten by the world!” And then from there, it's a more cathartic and hopeful experience.

My interpretation, and I’m sure some people won’t see this at all, would be that you’re showing us a distorted or exaggerated mirror-image, and that our society is not as completely opposed or completely antithetical to what we see in the film as we might like to think when we’re going into the theater.

Our society? No question. No question. And that's why I think it was important to make it more universal, and that's why certain choices were made, even to the extent of, you know, there's only one person that prays in the film. And that's the one character that you imagine most Westerners will go, “Yeah, I like that guy. That guy's all right.” You know, those types of things that play against ...

You didn't want to make this about Islam. You barely even mention it.

Correct. It’s about playing against our preconceived notions of what these cultures are like. They're not monoliths, they're complex.

"Rosewater” opens this week in major cities.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir