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Jon Stewart Gets Serious With 'Rosewater'

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Jon Stewart's first movie "Rosewater" tells the story of Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek contributor in Iran who was arrested on suspicion of spying in 2009 and brutally tortured for 188 days.

Shortly before he was detained, the Canadian-Iranian reporter was interviewed on Stewart's "Daily Show" by Jason Jones, who ribbed him for his "Western-educated Newsweek doublespeak." Though the segment had no connection to his arrest. Stewart, along with other media and the State Department, kept a spotlight on Bahari's imprisonment, and he was released on $300,000 bail in October 2009. When Bahari's memoir, "Then They Came for Me," wasn't picked up to be made into a movie, Stewart decided to write and direct the film himself.

At the Newseum in Washington on Sunday, Stewart screened the film for an audience of journalists of the type he loves to skewer on "The Daily Show." He was out of his faux-anchor suit and tie, and dressed for the part of auteur -- shades of gray, boots and a hipster two-day stubble. That morning, the New York Times movie critic  A.O. Scott praised his directorial debut: "Mr. Stewart, the world's leading fake newscaster, turns out to be a real filmmaker."

Backstage, Stewart sat for a few questions. Isn’t being able to make people laugh enough? Why does he have to go and get all serious?

“I tell stories,” he said. “Sometimes in stand-up, which I still go out and do. Sometimes in jokes on the show. Making a movie is not an alien process to what we do on the show. Some stories need a longer narrative to be told, a cinematic structure. And, of course, a film is indelible. It lasts."

Stewart said he had to “beg” to get three months off to work on the film, which opens nationwide on Nov. 14. He gathered a skeleton crew and budget ($10 million) and headed to Jordan, which stood in for Iran. The bigger leap was the one from comedy about the foibles of public officials, the press and the emptiness of celebrity to the horror of solitary confinement broken up by periodic beatings.

When Bahari joined Stewart in the green room, they seemed to do a mind-meld. Stewart calls him his “Liza Minnelli. He makes me laugh, he makes me cry.”

The film is a moving reminder of how people of great courage risk their lives every day for the freedom we take for granted. Bahari is Stewart’s kind of journalist; he put everything on the line to tell a life and death story.

The other type are the ones Stewart ridicules daily for their herd mentality, their shallowness, for making a mountain out of a molehill to fill the news maw. We Washington reporters hop on a flight to Iowa to cover a candidate castrating a hog and feel as if we’re practicing journalism.

“Oh, we slog, baby -- don't think we don't,” Stewart said of his daily grind, but his half-hour of fake news every weeknight has made a mark on journalism and politics. A favorite Daily Show trope is a montage of talking heads using the same clichéd words to make the same clichéd point. He recently did one with reporters going nuts over Obama saluting with a coffee cup in his hand that ended with George W. Bush saluting with a coffee cup. To get big laughs, Stewart only has to point out things we never bother to submit to our own logic. It’s the smile of reason.

This approach is a big part of what makes "Rosewater" so good. Its point is serious, but it is expository rather than didactic. Years of letting politicians and pundits serve as their own punch lines has taught Stewart to let the truth explain itself. The film shows the absurdity of a regime that thinks it can lock up truth-tellers and prevail.

The humor shined through as Bahari explained reality to his Iranian interrogator, a bureaucrat who overdid the rosewater cologne, had a nagging wife he needed to get home to and a boss to please. His captor thought Bahari had lived a licentious life in the West and the prisoner played along, talking about massage parlors around the world -- and in New Jersey (a perennial Stewart punch line). Most Iranian diplomats posted in New York live across the Hudson, so Sopranoland makes up most of their American experience.

More amusing to the journalists in the audience was Bahari telling his captors how far out of the loop they were if they thought Newsweek still mattered. It was hardly surviving as a printed magazine, much less as a vehicle for U.S. spying on the Iranian regime.

In making the movie, Stewart didn’t face the kind of peril that Bahari did,  yet he did take a risk: To step out of successful anchorland into "who do you think you are" directordom is like hanging a "kick me" sign on your back.  

Neither Stewart nor Bahari like what they call Dr. Phil/Oprah kinds of personal questions. But that's where I head when I ask if what he really wants to do with his life is another film. Instead of answering, Stewart said that given how hard it was the first time, he didn't know if he would be able to take time off from the show again. 

"I might just have to come up with a mannequin, prop it in my chair until they catch on: 'Hey, wait a minute, that's not Stewart.' By that time, maybe I’d have gotten a month.”

One of the most enticing parts of a "Daily Show" interview is the last 20 seconds, when Stewart leans into his guests and whispers something inaudible to viewers at home. What does he say?

"I say, ‘Time’s up. Get the [blank] out of here,’" he said.

And so I did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net