With Rosewater, Jon Stewart shows that he can indeed direct a film. Skepticism or doubt for the comedian and host of The Daily Show making a serious film about a journalist’s four-month imprisonment in Iran is understandable.
As we push toward awards season, there might be some backbiting snark about Rosewater owing more to its cinematographer or assistant directors. And Stewart likely is indebted to those who helped him behind the camera, especially with this film being made during a three-month period in the summer of 2013, while on hiatus from The Daily Show.
But is it really fair to dismiss Stewart as a filmmaker so easily? People can do more than one thing. Artists are capable of succeeding in different ventures. Is it really so difficult to believe that someone as smart and talented as Stewart couldn’t make a decent film?
Yes, Stewart has made a career out of mining the news for laughs and ridiculing those in power. But that comes from a place of seriousness, a deep interest in politics, current affairs, history and holding the media responsible for doing its job. Looking at it from that standpoint, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Maziar Bahari’s story — initially told in his memoir Then They Came For Me — is one that would appeal to Stewart.
(The story also has a personal connection to Stewart, as a satirical interview Bahari recorded with The Daily Show‘s Jason Jones is used as “evidence” by the Iranian government to justify the reporter’s arrest and imprisonment. The absurdity of that entire circumstance is perhaps a tip toward Stewart’s sense of humor, but it wasn’t something contrived by the film to make a point.)
However, there is an artist’s touch to Rosewater. The opening scene showing the title substance being made is beautiful, though it perhaps sets a strange mood for the beginning of the film. (Of course, the title itself creates the same possible confusion, referring to the scent Bahari associates with his interrogator, rather than explaining the setting and circumstances of the story.)
When Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) thinks of his late sister, we see her projected on the windows of cafes and stores he walks by in downtown Tehran. Stewart uses graphics and special effects to demonstrate the vast quickness and reach of social media in protesting the Iranian presidential elections. But the film probably moves most from the literal into the abstract when attempting to portray Bahari’s mindset during his imprisonment.
In interviews, he’s been quite outspoken about how difficult solitary confinement was. Staring at four walls with only a small window to hint at what exists outside and a bench to provide occasional comfort, one can easily lose his dignity and insanity. So Bahari imagined conversations with his late father and sister, both of whom were imprisoned by the Iranian government years earlier.
Though the dialogues add exposition to Stewart’s script — and writing instructors might call this “telling, not showing” — it creates some drama where none might exist on the surface, and gets to the heart of Bahari’s internal conflict. Is he strong enough to get through this ordeal? Can he outsmart his captors? Does he believe in freedom of expression as deeply as his father and sister did?
Unfortunately, these abstract choices do take some weight away from the film, making its story and message a bit too subtle. Perhaps Stewart is trusting his audience to draw its own conclusions, something I typically prefer from writers and filmmakers.
Yet it does make Rosewater feel as if it lacks some depth. Stewart’s decision to show Bahari’s fear of the threat of violence from his interrogator (played by Kim Bodnia), rather than the actual torture, is probably the correct one. But the character never feels as isolated as he surely was in real life because of the imagined conversations happening on screen. So when Bahari realizes the attention and support that his imprisonment has generated around the world, it doesn’t feel like the revelatory moment it could have been.
With Stewart now having made Rosewater and his Daily Show contract expiring next year, the question of whether the comedian might move on to other pursuits has been asked frequently as he’s promoted the film. Personally, I hope this isn’t the last movie Stewart makes. He shows promise as a director and now has a new forum to point out the absurdities of politics throughout the world.