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Jon Stewart

Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in a scene from Irresistible. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jon Stewart’s late-night reign on The Daily Show lasted sixteen years, from 1999 through 2015. His bold skewering of American and world events was equaled only by Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report. Together, they dominated an outrageous corner of a unique brand of journalism.

Stewart’s first foray into writing and directing was the film adaption of the memoir Then They Came for Me, titled Rosewater (2014), a serious drama about London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s imprisonment in Iran. Now, Stewart has turned to comedy and written and directed the political satire Irresistible.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in a scene from the film.

Steve Carell (Michael Scott of The Office, General Naird in Netflix’s Space Force, and one of Stewart’s Daily Show colleagues) plays Gary Zimmer, a Democratic political strategist working the campaign of retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) as he runs for mayor in a what is a unanimously conservative Wisconsin town. Hastings had interrupted a town hall meeting with a plea for their undocumented workers, making a case that everyone’s responsibility is “to the least of us.” A viral video brings Hastings’ plea to Zimmer’s attention. 

Coming off the failed 2016 presidential campaign, this is Zimmer’s attempt to connect with the voters of the heartland. No sooner does he set up camp than his Republican equivalent, nemesis Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), shows up to take over the current mayor’s (Brent Sexton) campaign. It is all-out war between the two factions as the battle is played out in the national media.

Initially, there are a good number of city-folk-in-the-country gags. Seeing the entire campaign staff crammed into a car in the high school parking lot because it’s the only place with decent Wi-Fi is amusing. One particularly obvious (but admittedly humorous) moment is the announcement of the Colonel’s campaign while Zimmer is trying to get the cows posed properly behind him. Fortunately, these easy laughs are not what make up the majority of the film. Most of the real wit comes at the expense of both the left and the right and the extremes they will go to “win,” as well as a viciously accurate look at the twenty-four hours news cycle.

Steve Carell and Mackenzie Davis in a scene from the film.

The film doesn’t avoid the dire straits and financial hardships of the current Midwest.  Deerlaken has been hard-hit by the closing of its military base. There are empty shops up and down the narrow main street. Its citizens are struggling. Stewart makes a point of honoring their humanity and intelligence; it is not a long stream of hick and redneck jokes but real people dealing with difficult problems. The fact that Deerlaken’s two sides don’t rise to the adversarial levels of the interlopers shows that they are, above all, a community.

A great deal is made about the age of information. Both Zimmer and Brewster bring in droves of consultants to research, conduct focus groups, and create over-the-top advertisements. One assessment that is an example of misplaced reliance on computer analysis is the disastrous leafletting campaign that ends up targeting a convent.  

The character development is subtle but ever present. All of the characters either grow or reveal themselves through the fast-moving hundred minutes. And while much of the situation is both ridiculous and untenable — and is as extreme as it gets — the reality is never gone. The campaign gets uglier, and Zimmer loses sight of his original goal. There is a comic discussion of “they go low; we go high” as he travels further down the twisted road in the opposite direction. This speaks to the overall question of what it means to be a good guy vs. “a good guy.”

One of the main takeaways is that elections are not even about politics. They are about math. If you can’t get more people to vote for your candidate, then you get fewer people to vote for the other. This is one of the few films to deal directly with the what is labeled the “election economy” — the money that is made through the campaigns but not necessarily for them. Fortunately, for a film about a corrupt and awful system, it never loses its comedic center.

The cast is all in top form. Carell gives a nuanced performance, with the growing realty that he is an outsider and yet believes in what he is doing. One of his most effective moments is when he explains the difference in the two factions; this gleam of non-partisan passion is beautifully understated. Byrne is a bit of evil incarnate but still manages to be wickedly charismatic. Chris Cooper accomplishes in silence what most actors can barely achieve with dialogue. When Zimmer drags him to New York for a West Side fundraiser, the pain and embarrassment are only matched by the pride in his own beliefs.  

Mackenzie Davis (recently seen in The Turning) has just the right mix of ease and strength as the Colonel’s daughter, who is wary of the entire process, and whose only concern is for her widowed father. Sexton’s mayor shows that he loves his people and is as frustrated with the situation as the Colonel. The supporting cast are all uniformly good, with the actors playing the locals being particularly dimensional and avoiding caricature.  

The film’s final shift is a smart-one and an incredible “ah-hah” moment — one that resonates in ways that will keep you thinking for quite some time. It raises very serious questions about the structure and value of the United States’ election process. And make sure to watch through the cunningly clever credits as well as the exit interview Jon Stewart conducts with Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Though light in tone, its message is clear and drives home the questions raised in the film’s final act.

In short, Irresistible is very entertaining, with a big heart but an even bigger brain. You can watch it for the laughs but you will leave it with an education. Rated R, the film is now available On Demand.

Photos courtesy of Focus Features

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Jon Stewart, Raymond Pfeifer and John Feal talk after the ceremony honoring those lost on and after Sept. 11, 2001. Photo from John Feal

To the wall, the names were new, but to those at 9/11 Responders Remembered Park, they brought with them years of courage and heroism. All eyes were on the park on Saturday as 61 more names were etched into its wall of heroes, honoring those who paid the ultimate price for their efforts in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The event was packed with first responders, their families, lawmakers and advocates, including advocate and first responder John Feal of Nesconset’s FealGood Foundation and comedian Jon Stewart.

“This park was built … to serve the 9/11 community with grace, dignity and humility,” Feal said to the crowd before the new names were read aloud. “I hope this park will help tell the stories of our nation’s greatest resources: its citizens, both uniformed and nonuniformed.”

Feal and several members of what they called the 9/11 community have descended upon the Nesconset park every year since it was established in 2009 to add names to the wall of heroes, paying tribute to those who have died on or after that horrific day. Martin Aponte, president of the North Shore park, reminded the crowd that they were not there to mourn, but to reflect, remember and recognize the stories behind the names on the wall behind him.

Jon Stewart and John Feal observe the wall of heroes at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park. Photo from John Feal
Jon Stewart and John Feal observe the wall of heroes at the 9/11 Responders Remembered Park. Photo from John Feal

“To maintain this park is the least we can do for those who have served our nation with distinguished honor, courage and sacrifice,” he said. “We are here only to serve a fragile fraternity of heroes who come here to rest and join their brothers and sisters. Their story is told through this park.”

Feal, along with Stewart and New York City firefighter Raymond Pfeifer, used the ceremony as a means to celebrate a recent legislative victory they helped accomplish nationwide after years of pushing Congress to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, which supports first responders whose illnesses are linked to their efforts on 9/11. For his tireless advocacy on the subject, Pfeifer was awarded an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol along with a golden firefighter’s axe on a plaque.

Pfeifer, who spent eight months on top of the debris pile of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, has stage-four cancer and spoke from a wheelchair about the collaborative efforts it took to overcome that day.

“Today is a good day. It’s sad, but nobody gets out alive. Anytime you can tell a story about [first responders] that’s a good thing,” he said.

With a heavy-hearted expression on his face, Stewart read each of the names that were added to the wall that day in somber tone. The tolling of a bell followed each name. After his remarks, the comedian and former host of “The Daily Show” remarked on his time on the front lines of advocating for first responders’ benefits. He spoke to inspire those in attendance against the fear of terrorism, saying “we win” because of America’s unending resource of courage.

“I’m always humbled when I’m in the company of Ray and John, and all the other responders,” he said. “I can never in my life repay the debt that you all gave to not just me, but to the city and to the country. We owe you, and we will continue to owe you forever.”