If you’ve never watched The Daily Show, you’re missing out on a great deal of political humor/satire. The show’s host, Jon Stewart, is an easily recognizable comedian and his worked has impressed many over the last decade, or so. Stewart is always in front of the camera, but his strong ties to a political story in Iran ended him up behind the camera, filming his own movie. We know that the man can act, but can he write and direct a worthwhile film that audiences will be positively receptive towards?
In 2009, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was working for Newsweek in London and was tasked to travel to Iran to cover the upcoming election. During his journalistic time there, Bahari interviewed many supports of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. A man named Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) shuttled Bahari around and the two ultimately ended up capturing video of riots and Iranian soldiers killing civilians during the civil unrest after Ahmadinejad was re-elected. This footage, as well as footage of Bahari talking with The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart (posing as a spy for his show), led to Bahari being detained by the Iranian government.
A man by the name of Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) questioned Bahari for days, asking who he was a spy for. He’d seen The Daily Show footage and was led to believe that Bahari was working with the west. His supervisor, Haj Agha (Nasser Faris), wanted Bahari to confess to being a traitor and in return, he would be free to go home to his pregnant wife (Claire Foy). During his 118 days in captivity, Bahari consulted the ghost of his father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), both of whom had been detained during his childhood. Bahari’s strong will and firm beliefs can only get him so far.
Rosewater is a strange amalgamation of politics and comedy which ultimately ends up leaving you scratching your head. There are certainly some things that are done well, but there are many questionable decisions that left me so confused. There’s an interesting story within this film, but it’s told in all the wrong ways and isn’t always treated as seriously as it should be. That being said, the film does make an appealing first effort for the director, whom we’ll get to in a moment. There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding this film, but I’m not sure that everyone will be completely satisfied.
Gael Garcia Bernal carries the majority of the weight in this film, which makes sense considering he’s the singular focus. He provides us with a fairly serious performance that’s moving enough to keep your interest. His range of expressions may be limited, but he’s best when balancing comedy and drama. That’s an odd thing to enjoy about a performance in a film that should be serious, but Bernal handles both extremely well. His dedication as a journalist is more than admirable and how he handles his time in prison makes for a more interesting portion of the film.
Director Jon Stewart shows a lot of promise as a filmmaker, as he clearly brings his hilarious personality to the silver screen. His political mind keeps you interested in the story and the bits of political comedy offered provide a much-needed chuckle, even if the timing is a bit inappropriate. Visually, Stewart has an eye for gripping images that force you to connect with what’s happening on-screen and the most compelling sequences often come from the roaming video recorder used by Bernal. The footage used in the film gives an idea of the politics in Iran and Stewart capitalizes on that fact, in order to get us better invested in his story.
Now, as good-looking as this film is, it does suffer from some directorial and stylistic choices that Stewart opts to make. After Sherlock revolutionized how social media looks on-screen, it’s almost become a gimmick in Hollywood and Stewart overdoes that a bit in this film. From a comedy standpoint, while the writing is funny, it just feels incredibly odd to find it in this film. The serious nature of everything makes the comedy seem random and unnecessary and while it was obvious that Stewart wrote it, I didn’t think that was a good thing. He doesn’t entirely know how to tell the story and his inexperience is evident, especially when things get almost too funny.
Along with tonal inconsistencies, Rosewater is full of odd and half-formed characters that come and go without much reasoning. Kim Bodnia’s horny torturer (of sorts) is a bizarre and unpredictable character that neither scares, nor amuses. Leonidas isn’t around long enough to make a lasting impact on the audience, and then there’s the inclusion of the ghosts of Bahari’s father and sister. Those sequences make some sense, but they’re only included when the film is really struggling to keep your attention. In general, this film isn’t all that serious and that’s not to say that Bahari’s experience wasn’t traumatic, but it just doesn’t feel all that serious. I never felt that his character was in danger and his treatment didn’t make me all that concerned either. Most of that lack of feeling is due to how things were presented.
Rosewater is an adequate first effort by Jon Stewart, as it highlights what the man is really great at. He knows what audiences enjoy, he creates smart and funny writing, and he has the visuals to back things up. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t know how to combine all those elements in an effort to tell a strong story. The acting is fine and Bernal does a good job of holding things down, but there really are no other compelling performances. Stewart shows promise, should he ever pursue another film, but I believe that he’s got a lot of fine-tuning to do before he ventures into another medium again.