Jon Stewart. You know, that guy from Big Daddy? The voice of Zeebad in the Magic Roundabout movie, Doogal? He played himself in several films too, like The Adjustment Bureau. Still nothing?
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that there was more to the man than his eponymous programme, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In fact, in most of the world you could be forgiven for not knowing who Jon Stewart is, but no longer. With a staggering 2,542 episodes over 16 years under his belt, “America’s best fake news show” has won 19 Emmy Awards from 50 nominations under Jon Stewart’s leadership. Fake news is a misleading title; for the most part The Daily Show covers real news, but frames it as a satire. For the Brits, think Have I Got News For You, crossed with Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, and add a dash of Jeremy Paxman.
From his seat in Comedy Central, Stewart has interviewed Presidents and Prime Ministers from across the globe, shone light on otherwise ignored news stories, and still found time for absurd tomfoolery. Through Stewart, the show has consistently tapped into the zeitgeist and shown its serious side, acting as a voice of reason following a number of tragic events. In the process he has become one of the most trusted names in the USA, with the majority of Americans under 35 citing The Daily Show as their primary source of television news.
Whilst not as prodigious as the likes of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show has a track record as a proving ground for comedians set for greater things, including Steve Carell (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), Rob Riggle (Let’s Be Cops), Olivia Munn (Mortdecai) and Rob Corddry (Hot Tub Time Machine 2). Whilst Stewart’s stay has been considerably longer and more consistent, the time has come for him to move on as the most high-profile exit amongst these distinguished alumni. He got itchy feet, and a likely source and enabler of this dissatisfaction was this week’s new release: Rosewater.
Researchers and critics debate the widespread impact of The Daily Show – does it affect voting, does it inform or entertain the audience? – but in 2009 its personal impact was undeniable. Rosewater tells the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari who was detained in Iran for more than 100 days and brutally interrogated in prison. His crime? Appearing on The Daily Show.
Following a series of satirical interviews covering the country’s presidential election, Iranian guards arrested several of the interviewees, including Bahari. Jon Stewart obviously felt some responsibility for the arrests, for the accusations of spying and being in communication with spies. When it later emerged that Iranian authorities used the Daily Show interviews as evidence and justification, Stewart was understandably shocked and mortified – the humour was gone. All of this because of a feature on an American show which set out to dispel the myth that the Iranian people were part of the axis of evil.
Stewart continued to cover the arrests on and off the show, and as such it was inevitable that the two would meet following Bahari’s release. Bahari had written about his harrowing experiences in jail and expressed his hope to Stewart that someone would make this account into a movie. After his early involvement in the situation grew and grew, Stewart was now indelibly linked with Bahari; one’s story would become the other’s film. Stewart went on to write, produce and direct this film.
Bahari’s book is titled Then They Came For Me, derived from Martin Niemöller’s poem ‘First They Came…’, which concerns the importance of speaking out against injustice of any kind. This spirit is as much as part of The Daily Show’s mission as it is a mantra against wrongful imprisonment. For this feature film a simpler title was chosen which, once understood, evokes some powerful imagery. Bahari reports that he was blindfolded during interrogations and that he could only identify his interrogator through his singular fragrance: rosewater.
When Stewart moved from Daily Show to director he potentially brought a vast audience with him. Despite the shift in tone from satire to drama (albeit often humorous), his crowd, a vital demographic for Hollywood, will no doubt have been expected to produce somewhat safe box office takings. This failed to play out as hoped. When it was released in November 2014 in a limited US outing, Rosewater took $3 million against an estimated production budget of $5 million. Worse than this, Box Office Mojo figures show that takings consistently halved (on average) each weekend of its seven-week run. This was not helped by a similarly heavy reduction in cinemas showing the film; where the distributors had been hoping to increase their showings each week as word-of-mouth built up the film, they instead saw the opening 371 theatres cut to 216 in week three, 115 in week five, and ending in the low double-digits in weeks six and seven.
Maybe Rosewater will fare better internationally, but regardless of box office success one thing seems certain; Jon Stewart has delivered a solid directorial debut which showcases his considerable talent, and it seems very likely that, unless he decides to run for president, this is just the beginning of his new career behind the camera. The Daily Show’s loss is cinema’s gain.