"Daily Show" host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, "Rosewater," premiered last week amidst a great deal of media buzz. The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal in an adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s account of being imprisoned and tortured after reporting on the post-election violence in Iran in 2009.
But the question on everyone’s mind was why Stewart would break into directing with a serious film so unlike the comedy he offers viewers on "The Daily Show." Was Stewart revealing a new shift in his career away from satire and towards more serious work? More to the point: what could a satirical comedian bring to a story like Bahari’s? Or, asked others, was this film just a sign of Stewart’s own professional hubris?
The obvious tie between Bahari and Stewart does, indeed, originate in a "Daily Show" piece. In the days preceding the election Bahari did an interview with "The Daily Show’s" Jason Jones, who did the bit pretending to be an American spy. The satirical interview was then later used against Bahari as evidence of his own identity as a spy and of his collusion with America. In the film scene, Bahari’s interrogator, dubbed Rosewater after his cologne, shows "The Daily Show" clip as proof, leading Bahari to chuckle and quip: “Why would a real spy have a TV show?” Clearly Bahari doesn’t realize that logic is lost on the torturer’s simple mind.
It would be easy to see why such a story would attract Stewart to the project. Not only had an interview for his show played a role in imprisoning a journalist, but the fact that the Iranians detaining Bahari didn’t “get” the joke also had to appeal. And yet, that link just doesn’t seem to fully explain the project. Despite "The Daily Show" connection, this is a serious film about a serious issue. So what was Stewart doing in the director’s chair?
While many reviews have pointed to the way that Stewart manages to infuse dark, wry humor into the film, those reviews miss the deeper links between Stewart’s craft of satire and the film’s message. The link is not humor; it’s satire’s unique approach to questioning power and encouraging independent thought.
One of the essential distinctions between satire and mockery is that the comedy of satire has a point and it has a style. The point is to encourage critical thinking and to motivate the audience to challenge the status quo. The style is playful irony, where there is always a gap between what is said and what is inferred. The goal is not laughter, nor is it cynicism. It depends on an artful use of language and on an irreverent commitment to logic. And that is why it made perfect sense for a satirist to make a film about Bahari’s experiences.
When Bahari first arrived in Tehran to cover the 2009 election he was immediately aware of a set of competing realities. In his first scene reporting in Tehran he shoots video of a pro-Ahmadinejad spokesman, devoutly intoning: “Ahmadinejad is devoted to the Supreme Leader. Ahmadinejad is what must be.” Only to leave the building and have his driver ask him if he “wants to report the other side.” After Bahari arrives at “dish university” --a rooftop filled with satellite dishes providing information otherwise censored -- he realizes that many Iranians are questioning official rhetoric and creating their own version of the story.
That story, of course, tracks quite closely with Stewart’s own role as a critic of the official party line right here in the United States. And much of what Bahari witnesses does not feel completely different from the post 9/11 rhetoric that was offered to the U.S. public. Stewart’s Bahari witnesses the collapse of logic and the rise of fear among the power elite. Meanwhile they also both experience the way that social media and citizen journalism have offered alternatives to mainstream media.
There is an obvious association, then, with Stewart’s own fight for reason, truth, and informative reporting in the post 9/11, Fox News world of biased and inflammatory rhetoric we have in the United States and the Iran encountered by Bahari. Quotes by Ted Cruz or Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity can seem equally as dogmatic as some of the lines offered up by the interrogators in the film. As Bahari puts it in the Jones interview: “We are not so different.”
The real art of Stewart’s satire craft comes through, though, in the prison scenes. There Bahari has to deal directly with the twisted logic of his captors and he has to find a way to use irony to save himself. His interrogator, Rosewater, is depicted as a bureaucrat with a fascination with the West’s loose morals. The key to his character, though, is that he is torturing Bahari based on misinformation. In addition to not getting the joke of the Jones interview, Rosewater believes that Pauly Shore and Anton Chekhov are master spies and that Pasolini’s Teorema is porn.
It’s funny, but it’s also frightening, since "Rosewater’s" poor reasoning skills lead to Bahari’s torture. Stewart films this in a way that reveals the ironic link between abusive power and stupidity, between false logic and fundamentalism, between thinking in absolutes and ruling by fear. And that, in fact, is his special skill and it is one he has developed through his work in satire.
Stewart shows us that, even though Bahari’s interrogator operates in a world of irony, his power is not a joke and it certainly isn’t funny. It’s antidote, though, may well be found in the realm of ironic humor. We watch Bahari increasingly turn to sarcasm as he feeds his interrogator a story that will satisfy him. While he does this, we witness Bahari recovering his own humanity: smiling, dancing, and dreaming of his release after days of depression and fear.
That is the real secret to Stewart’s role directing this film. At one point we hear that the demonstrators’ “only crime against the state was not believing in its perfection.” Stewart has committed the same crime. His film reminds us that there are times when the only way to speak truth to power is with irony, sarcasm, and satirical wit. The comedic register of "The Daily Show" may be quite different from Rosewater but the message is the same: in the face of abusive power, irony may well be one of our best weapons.