For all that Jon Stewart lacks in technical execution and practice he makes up for with an abundance of passion and respect for his subject, which he wears on his sleeve. There’s an exciting element to the way that Stewart shoots Rosewater that allows for the over-saturated frames and missteps to be forgiven, because if this is what he can create for his first film, you can’t help but wonder what he’ll do next.
Based on the memoir Then They Came for Me, Rosewater tells the story of Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal). It recounts Bahari’s 2009 imprisonment in Iran which was connected to a satirical bit he shot for The Daily Show. Iranian authorities presented the clip as evidence that he was in communication with an American spy. Held in solitary confinement for 118 days, aside from routine visits from his violent interrogator, the story is as much about Bahari’s will to survive and finding beauty in the darkest times as it is about revolution. Regardless of your stature, your age or your place in life, whether you’re a reporter for a major news corporation or a kid with a phone who takes pictures, you can be an aid to revolution, to change, and to the betterment of society. Rosewater, in its own subtle way, is a film that very much believes in the strength of the human spirit; it just so happens that Bahari is the primary focus.
This is where Stewart’s passion shines through. The scenes of the imprisonment are impressive, and it’s interesting to note in a film that frequents dramatic material that Stewart has mastered comedic timing in directing better than many comedy directors. The quick cuts of Bahari’s questioning are representative of this. He also knows how to build up tension and not allow the camera to linger too long on a person’s anguish. One scene in particular where Bahari believes he’s about to be killed is absurdly gripping, the camera focusing on Bernal’s face as he beautifully acts out the quick procession of emotions that Bahari goes through in the face of imminent death, but still blindfolded so that his senses are dulled, as defenseless as they come. Despite this, it’s the scenes of political discord where you find Stewart in his element and see his passion for certain topics come to light: scenes where chaos breaks out in the streets between citizens and police are disorienting, scary, and very true to life. Very few directors today take on political subjects, and fewer still take on political subjects that humanize people in the Middle East, so to see Stewart do all of the above makes for a fresh filmgoing experience.
Of course, as a first time director, there are drawbacks, and ones that aren’t so easily ignored. These mainly happen when he chooses to be experimental, such as when Bahari is walking down a busy street and flashes of his life pop up as moving pictures on store-side displays. It’s a little goofy, and most people have already noted it as such, but luckily it happens so early in the film that by the end it’s forgotten. Stewart’s script also lacks the deft hand that could have made it even more effective by chipping away at some of the humor (but not all of it, because it’s the humor that separates this film from the norm), and adding an ending that didn’t seem so rushed would have helped tie the film up nicely.
There’s much to enjoy about Rosewater apart from Stewart’s hand in it. Howard Shore has composed a lovely, emotional score to accompany the film, a nice reminder of why he’s so beloved beyond his Peter Jackson affiliated work.
Then, of course, there is Bernal, who has been, and will continue to be, one of the most underrated talents out there today. He’s consistently delivering quality performances, and this is likely one of the meatiest ones he’s gotten in a while, and he gives it his all. He’s joyously lively, he’s timid, he’s well attuned to comic timing, and he’s alive when he performs. We never see him acting or thinking out the part. A scene in particular where he dances to an imaginary song in his cell is a great reminder of the overflowing well of charm he possesses, and if you walk away wanting to see him in more films, you’re right.
Rosewater won’t be remembered as one of the year’s best, and it isn’t, but it’s evocative and it’s compelling and it’s a nice little feature for a face we’ve come to know over the years. Stewart has talent and interests that lie beyond the desk he sits behind on Comedy Central, and I’d love to see him give directing another go.
Rosewater is out now.