For the 15+ years, Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show” where he could be depended on to bring his acerbic wit and often scathing political commentary to virtually every show. His most devoted followers leaned left, though he was known to take down extremists on both ends. Stewart’s first foray into filmmaking as writer-director was Rosewater (2014), a look at the detainment and interrogation of journalist Maziar Bahari in an Iranian prison. This follow-up takes a much lighter approach – one similar to his TV days – while still managing to skewer our election system and campaign financing.
Steve Carell spent a brief time as a reporter/correspondent on “The Daily Show” before heading off to mega-stardom in movies and on TV. Here he plays Gary Zimmer, a political strategist for the Democratic Party. The film opens on the 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we first see Zimmer in a whirlwind media battle of words against his nemesis, Faith Brewster (played by a funny but underutilized Rose Byrne), a strategist for the Republicans. As you might imagine, Zimmer is in a funk after the election, and his career is in shambles.
A ray of hope and inspiration enters Zimmer’s life in the form of a viral YouTube video. Wisconsin farmer and former Marine Jack Hastings (the great Chris Cooper) is recorded tearing into the Deerlaken Mayor and City Council. Zimmer recognizes the Patriotism and a potential Party savior, and seizes on the opportunity to convince Hastings that the Democrats stand for the same things he stands for…those things he rattled off in the video.
Zimmer in Deerlaken is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, and his trip is farmed for laughs. It starts in the local German beer hall and carries forward to Hastings’ farm, where Zimmer spots daughter Diana Hastings (Mackenzie Davis) up to her elbow in a cow. The other locals we get to know include Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin as Big Mike and Little Mike, CJ Wilson as the accommodating barkeep, Blair Sams as the eager baker, and Brent Sexton as Republican Mayor Braun. When Zimmer’s campaign for Hastings catches the eye of Ms. Brewster, we soon experience an all-out political brawl for the Mayor’s job in this tiny town…one recently made smaller by the closing of the local military base. Director Stewart labels this “Heartland USA.”
Of course, this isn’t a story about the candidates. It’s Stewart’s commentary on how campaigns are conducted today. Social media and the national news media are weapons, and we see that there’s no such thing as dirty politics…only politics. Topher Grace plays a pollster and Natasha Lyonne is in charge of analytics, and the over-dependence on data is made clear. However, the biggest point Stewart makes has to do with campaign finance and money. It’s all about the ‘Benjamins.’ The Super PAC is shoved (conveniently) to the back of the room in what Stewart terms “an election economy.”
There are plenty of Jon Stewart comedic touches on display. We get “Rhinestone Cowboy” used a couple of times, see “swing voters” listed on a first-name basis, and get an advertising slogan of “a redder kind of blue.” When Faith Brewster says “I look forward to lying to you in the future,” we recognize this as prime form Stewart. The problem with political statements, political commentary, and political satire, is that people will complain it goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough, or points the finger, or doesn’t point the finger. It won’t cover what they want covered in a way they want it covered. Stewart lets neither party off here. In fact, he lays blame on both. However, given what we see and live through on a daily basis right now, Stewart’s observations come across a bit tame…we wish he had pushed harder.
The opening credits segment is brilliant with a slide show of previous campaigns accompanied by Bob Seger’s “Still the Same,” and the closing credits are worth sticking around for just to hear Trevor Potter, the former Chairman of Federal Election Commission.
Irresistible is available on Digital/VOD.