The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart makes his directorial debut in this drama based on the memoir by Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who, after a Daily Show appearance that was misinterpreted (perhaps intentionally) by the Iranian authorities, was imprisoned for four months on suspicion of being an American spy.
This is not at all the kind of film I would have expected from first-time director Stewart and, as an admirer of his show, I am proud of him for making it. Unfortunately, the road to a bad movie is all too often paved with good intentions and it really is too bad that Rosewater isn’t very good.
Bahari, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is locked up, beaten, and tormented but even when depicting such obvious injustice, Rosewater rarely inspires much outrage or any emotional reaction at all. Not that it doesn’t have its moments. Bernal actually plays the part quite well. In an early scene, Bahari, at first reluctant to rock the boat too much when in Tehran to cover the 2009 elections, reaches a turning point when he makes a decision to continue filming as authorities open fire on a group of angry protesters. For a second, you can see that his instinct is to make a run for it but, with a look on his face that says “okay, I’m a part of this now” and raise his camera to continue to bear witness. It’s a nice moment and there are others like it, where Bahari continues to make decisions to speak the truth that could put him at risk, even though we can tell that he’s scared.
But way too often, the flow is disrupted and the impact is lessened by amateurish flashbacks and scenes of Bahari alone in his cell having imaginary conversations with his father. Worse though are Stewart’s frequent attempts to lighten the mood with some humour, which suggest a lack of confidence as a first-time filmmaker. These scenes feel more like the jokes I make on a first date that I’m afraid is not going well at all than the political satire I would have expected from the host of The Daily Show. Stewart’s heart seems to be in the right place and he clearly has a lot to say so, with a little more confidence and experience, who knows what he can accomplish as a filmmaker?