Five years after he vacated his seat on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Jon Stewart returns to the political conversation with the new satire, Irresistible. For the man who came to define a certain brand of whip-smart and incredulous after-dark political commentary – one that has proliferated on American screens in the last decade – his second film as writer and director puts him on familiar ground and sees him firing at familiar targets. There are absurd political operatives, here played by Steve Carell on the Left and Rose Byrne on the Right, and sharp attacks on the influence of money in politics, with outside dollars and media vans swarming a small Wisconsin mayoral election that goes suddenly national. There’s also a good and decent guy there, too, smack dab in the middle of things, staring at the circus surrounding him with increasing bemusement. This time it’s not Stewart himself wearing that bemused grin, but farmer and military veteran Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), who is roped into running for mayor on the Democratic ticket when a video of him speaking at a local council meeting goes viral.
Ahead of the movie’s digital release, Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Stewart about why he decided to pick up the pen and camera again; how Irresistible is in some was similar to his first film, the Iran-set Rosewater, about a journalist captured by the country’s authoritarian regime; and why his new satire takes aim at the system rather than either party or a politician specifically. Oh, and we also asked about The Faculty, because this might have been our only chance…
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: It’s been almost six years since you released your first film, the drama Rosewater – what made you want to step back into the writer’s and director’s chair now and for a project that is so tonally different?
Jon Stewart: Irresistible is probably more akin to the things I’m used to doing. The Rosewater project was such an anomaly, spawned from such unfortunate circumstances. (Obviously, there was going to be no sequel, hopefully… I didn’t get anybody else arrested by an authoritarian regime.) And I was kind of so used to just commenting on the weather of a political system, I guess I thought it might be interesting [with Irresistible] to try to take up a wider view, sort of a climate view, as to what it is about the system – outside of the partisanship aspect – that drives it.
There is a connection between both films – they’re both about elections, one happening in an authoritarian regime and the other being overtaken by money. What is it about elections and the election process that fascinates you?
Stewart: Well, they’re really the levers for the direction that the country is going in. The defining aspect of any real democracy is how well it represents its citizens and how well it responds to their actual needs, and if the system becomes very perverted, that can steer the outcomes in a negative direction. That was the whole thing of the American Revolution. Which is why it’s so interesting in this moment now, where, you know, some people see the BLM movement as “too much” – yet you saw the Revolution because, like, how much our tea cost. I think when you compare that [issue] to labor and segregation, there’s a pretty good case to be upset. But yeah, it just seems like we’ve encountered a system that’s relatively unaccountable to the outcomes of the people on the ground.
You’ve said that part of the germination of the idea for Irresistible was the John Ossoff campaign in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District in 2017 – where it became hugely nationalized and money poured in from everywhere. What was it about that particular moment that stood out for you as being problematic, but also ripe for satire?
Stewart: I think it’s the cyclical nature of it. We kept getting these corrupted outcomes, you know, whether it was the Iraq War… government decisions and trickle-down economics that are clearly not having the effect of helping. I kind of viewed it all as a pendulum swing; I mean, Trump’s so far in this other direction. I just kept trying to figure out how there is common-sense legislation that the overwhelming majority of Americans support and yet it gets no traction – and why is that? What are the factors that form this barrier around actually doing things that are responsive [to people’s needs]?
It felt like this kind of machinery had grown up around elections. Like, the money had gotten so big and, between the media, all that, the system is incentivized for that kind of money. It’s the military industrial complex, when Eisenhower was talking about it; it begins to have a will of its own. It tends to self-propagate. Systems like that don’t generally dismantle themselves; you have to find a way to reform it. This is not, by a long shot, obviously, the only problem facing us, but I just thought it might be interesting to try to look at it as a system.
One of the things that might surprise viewers when they watch Irresistible is that it is a critique of the whole system rather than a partisan critique. You’ll have people who will expect Jon Stewart to attack the conservatives, but no one is really spared from the fire here.
Stewart: You know, I think people know where my sympathies lie, but I do think that that is kind of the point of it – that if you want to use the system’s energy against it, if you try to land that fish, you got to have the right bait, and the bait is something that plays into their business model. And that’s their business model. The business model is that content, and keeping it going.
There’s a tendency to look at that and go, “Oh, you’re sitting both sides of the fence.” I’m not saying that at all. What I’m saying is, whoever they are, are performing in a Superfund site, and cleaning up the Superfund site isn’t a fix necessarily, but it will allow you to see the real divisions between those groups more easily. It’s sort of that right now the system obscures those differences to some extent, because it’s so noisy.
One of the movie’s standout scenes sees the candidate traveling from rural Wisconsin to the big city for a fancy fundraising dinner, where he has to kind of sell himself to rich donors. Was that drawn from scenes that you’ve witnessed in real life? And how much did you have to exaggerate – if at all?
Stewart: That scene is the thesis of the movie. That gives the movie away, I think, in my mind. You could save it for the end, I guess, but the hope is that [Hastings’ speech at the fundraiser] is the speech that you go back to, or a little bit after the whole thing you think about and kind of go, “Oh, that’s what he felt.” And that is based on a friend of mine, who’s run for Congress in West Virginia and had to come up to New York City to fundraise in a town house in Greenwich Village, and just what an incredibly peculiar night that was.
Obviously, [the scene in the film] is a fairly heightened version of that, but it’s similar. You know, coming up and convincing people that have nothing to do with you, and taking the time and the energy to raise this amount of money. The money that you’re raising is just part of it, it’s the influence that it buys, and the time that you have to spend doing it. There’s a lot going on, and if you spend three or four hours… everything’s become sort of personal branding, and how you build your personal brand takes time away from dealing with the actual job of legislating.
It boils down to: We have a more robust system in place for elections than we do for governing.
Another key scene, and really the thing that kicks off the action, sees Hastings making an impassioned plea for fairness at a local government meeting, a speech which is filmed on a cell phone and goes viral. We’re talking the day after Gary Chambers Jr. went viral in a video speaking at a school board meeting, and obviously at a time when cell phone footage has opened up a lot of people to the reality of racial violence in the country. How do you think cell phones and the fact that these moments can travel so quickly, and anyone can be a citizen journalist, is shaping politics?
Stewart: That’s really the crux of it, and you know, oddly enough, then you go back to Rosewater. The final image of that film is the boy holding up his cell phone. It’s the great equalizer, and that’s because nobody believes the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. They don’t have the lobbyists and they don’t have the power behind them. But they do have the ability to capture an image that encapsulates the difficulties of the lives that they live in their moment. You know, it’s proof. It’s like when someone has been in jail for years, and then all of a sudden, 30 years later, DNA technology comes out and there’s new evidence. The cell phone is a weapon to some extent. It exposes the anguish and the situation that they found themselves in for years but nobody would listen to.
I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool. And again, it’s competing in a sea of a lot of other nonsense. And people try to obscure the truth, too. All these things come with caveats, and that’s why I think I get so frustrated with the media, for instance, because they play such an important role in culture. And if they become a sort of information laundering system, which is sort of what it is now, we need this really important tool for contextualizing what we see. Earning that authority feels important.
You’re asked a lot about whether you wish you still had your old media platform, and you recently told the New York Times, “My efficacy for that kind of conversation has passed.” Can you unpack what you mean by that?
Stewart: It’s hard to remain creative and relevant. One of the difficulties of a topical show is that battle between making it sustainable and repeatable, but also inspired and creative. So you have to set up systems; it’s a factory, but it’s an evolving factory. And I think we spent a lot of time doing that. I think the show evolved in the types of voices, in the way that we did things, the technology. It evolved over those 16 years.
But I think once you stop being able to surprise yourself, and once you stop being able to find the right places to bring your oxygen to it… People get accustomed to my brain. And my brain felt that, “It’s done.” It felt like it had run its course – that I couldn’t evolve it in a way that I thought was meaningful enough to justify staying. And I didn’t think having the same conversation over and over again was interesting.
You know, you want it to be entertaining as well and I just thought that by that point, the audience and the show deserved a host that could then take the baton and infuse it with a different point of view and more oxygen and begin that sort of process again of renewal. I’ve been really gratified to see how well they’re doing and how impressive it is from the launch. But I don’t ever feel like, “Why didn’t I stay?” I completed the race and was ready to do other things.
Before they kick me off, I’m going to change gears completely and ask about a movie, which is actually one of my favorite movies and which you were in: The Faculty.
Stewart: Oh my God. That’s hilarious! Is that really one of your favorite movies? It’s such a kitsch movie.
It is! And a lot of other people love it too. Trust me. What do you remember about playing science teacher (and alien) Dr. Edward Furlong?
Stewart: Oh my God. Yeah. I mean, first of all, I had come from MTV and other things, but it was my first experience of really feeling like, “Oh, I’m the old man in this.” A lot of my scenes were with Josh Hartnett and all those good folks. I loved it. I mean, Robert [Rodriguez, the director] is so great. I just remember how quickly he worked and what a fascinating process it was. And at the time I was writing a book of essays, so I’d just go back to the room in Austin, which is a great city, and it’s a wonderful place to hang out.
The only drawback I remember is that, special effect budgets being what they were, when you have a pen-in-the-eye gadget glued to your face for a day, it really doesn’t matter how mild the solution they use to spur foam is… it will f–k your eye up so much.
Irresistible is available to rent or buy digitally from June 26, 2020.