‘Rosewater’ at TIFF 2014: What to Make of Jon Stewart’s Directorial Debut?
It’s impossible to separate 'Rosewater' from the personality that is Jon Stewart. On the surface, this statement makes little sense, because many films are deeply culturally intertwined with their director. But 'Rosewater' is a little different, because it’s a person not known for directing -- or even really acting, for that matter. Jon Stewart is famous, but famous for something almost completely unrelated. It would be as if Derek Jeter or Joe Biden directed a movie. The public curiosity with 'Rosewater' is all because of who directed 'Rosewater,' not what 'Rosewater' is about.
This certainly isn’t a criticism of "people," because it’s a normal reaction. The fact Jon Stewart directed 'Rosewater' is the only reason I attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, as opposed to a later screening or, honestly, not seeing the film at all. (That isn’t a knock on its subject matter, but more that there’s just such limited time at a film festival.)
And the subject matter is worthy, as 'Rosewater' details the incarceration of journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) in an Iranian prison -- on trumped up charges of being a spy; Bahari’s appearance on a 'The Daily Show' segment is used as evidence against him -- after the political unrest in Iran following the disputed 2009 elections.
I honestly can’t decide if people are going to be easier on ‘Rosewater’ because it’s directed by Jon Stewart and he’s in possession of years of goodwill, or if people will be harder on this film because it’s Jon Stewart, but not the Jon Stewart that he or she was expecting. If the name of the first time director had been, say, Steve Steadman (I just made up a name that sounds sort of real), the attitude might be, Hey, this Steve Steadman kid shows promise. But the fact that it is Stewart lends itself to a preconceived sense of quality. In other words: If Jon Stewart is going to devote this much time to something – leaving ‘The Daily Show’ for an extended period time in 2013, which is directly responsible for John Oliver having his own HBO show now -- the thinking is that it’s probably going to be pretty great.
But the fact is, ‘Rosewater’ is not “pretty great.” It’s a good first effort (I find myself using kid gloves as I type this because I do like Jon Stewart), but it feels like the work of a first time director. There are moments that really work – and are unexpectedly funny -- but it’s just not sustainable for the whole film.
It’s weird, the first act of the film is full of life as Bahari travels to Iran (Bahari is Iranian, but resides in London) to cover the 2009 election. It’s here, as Bahari travels around Tehran, that ‘Rosewater’ feels most alive. I think Stewart makes a mistake having Bahari go to prison so soon, because we spend almost the entirety of the rest of the movie in this prison. Of course, yes, this is a true story and Bahari endured hell for over three months, but there’s only so much a filmmaker can do with a story that takes place in a small cell and a small interrogation room. Unfortunately, ‘Rosewater’ really drags in that second act.
To Stewart’s credit, he finds his voice again in the third act. There’s a weird and welcome underlying humor in this third act, as Bahari’s captor is played up more like a buffoon who only wants to hear stories about New Jersey and happy ending massages. It’s too bad this wasn’t the almost-satirical tone throughout, because that said more about what was happening than watching Gael Garcia Bernal sitting in a room talking to imaginary people.
Jon Stewart made an OK movie. And, again, as a first time filmmaker, ‘Rosewater’ shows a lot of promise – and I really hope Stewart decides to make more movies, mostly because I suspect that he’ll be more confident with some of the stylistic choices he made. He sometimes seems to dabble instead of going “all in.” But, not many first time filmmakers will have the amount of attention that Stewart is experiencing – which is both a good thing for ‘Rosewater’ and bad thing for ‘Rosewater.’
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.