Directed by Jon Stewart
In 2009, Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was covering Iran's volatile elections for Newsweek. One of the few reporters living in the country with access to US media, he made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in a taped interview with comedian Jason Jones. The interview was intended as satire, but if the Tehran authorities got the joke they didn't like it - and it would quickly came back to haunt Bahari when he was rousted from his family home and thrown into prison. Making his directorial debut, Jon Stewart tells the tale of Bahari's months-long imprisonment and interrogation in this powerful and affecting docudrama featuring a potent and performance by Gael García Bernal recounting Bahari's efforts to maintain his hope and his sanity in the face of isolation and persecution-through memories of his family, recollections of the music he loves, and thoughts of his wife and unborn child.
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★★★½ review by Matt DeGroot on Letterboxd
Full disclosure: Jon Stewart is one of my idols and I'm naturally favored to enjoy anything he has his hand on. His brilliant work on The Daily Show for the past 15 years cannot be understated as he has regularly been more on-point about national and world affairs than most members of the "official" news media. So when I heard he would be writing and directing his first feature film, how could I not be excited?
It was only when I learned the subject matter of said film that I was taken aback a little bit. Jon Stewart directing a serious drama about a reporter being imprisoned in Iran? This didn't sound like the satire-packed fare that I might have expected from him, but I had faith. It was only when I learned more of the story that it began to make more sense.
Back in 2009, The Daily Show filmed a series of segments in Iran featuring correspondent Jason Jones. As part of this filming, Jones conducted an interview with an Iranian-Canadian reporter for Newsweek named Maziar Bahari. In said interview Jones jokingly referred to himself as a spy. Now, anyone who has seen The Daily Show knows that 90% of the things that come out of the correspondents' mouths are ridiculous and meant for comedic affect, but this particular joke had grave consequences.
After filming and releasing footage of the government violently repelling protesters following the fraudulent Iranian election of 2009, Bahari was arrested for being a spy and the main piece of evidence used against him was the clip from The Daily Show in which he gives information to "the spy", Jason Jones. Bahari then spent the next 118 days in solitary confinement with daily and sometimes violent interrogations by a man who smelled of rosewater.
It is therefore easy to see why Stewart would feel so connected to Bahari's plight and want to share that story further through the medium of film. And in both screenplay and direction, Stewart does a loving job of it. You can tell he treats the story delicately as if he genuinely feels responsible for the 118 horrible days that Bahari had to spend away from his family. This is a touching sentiment and a rare dynamic between a film director and the subject of his film and because of that there is no doubt in my mind that this would be a completely different film if it were in the hands of any other director.
But that also raises the question: would this even be considered as fodder for a film by anyone else? The answer to that is tricky. Bahari's situation is no doubt a horrific one but in the wide world of stories about people being wrongfully accused and tortured, this feels a little light on the dramatics. It pains me to write those worlds because I can't imagine having to go through what Bahari went through BUT in the full context of stories like this it could have been so much more tragic. One only has to look at current headlines about reporters being executed by ISIS for proof that there are reporters out there braving far more intense, horrific, and poignant scenarios that demonstrate the power of the press in a more inspiring light.
And although I don't want to knock Stewart for selecting a story that is near and dear to his heart, I think he could have made his points about journalistic freedom and the oppression of the Iranian government more powerfully with a different story or even a slightly fictionalized one.
Subject matter selection aside, Stewart proves himself adept behind the camera with some really beautiful choices throughout the film and a strong adherence to realism. He brilliantly mixes in elements of documentary-style footage in a way that had me unsure about what was real and what was fabricated for the film. His only real stumbling blocks appear in a few graphic-heavy montages used to depict the use of social media during the protests and the media response to Bahari's imprisonment. These particular elements don't really gel with the grounded realism of the rest of the film and felt more suitable for a documentary.
Acting-wise, Gael García Bernal makes a fantastic anchor to the film as Bahari. He is likable, relateable, and instantly puts you on Bahari's side. He is aided in his acting effort by a well-chosen supporting cast that makes you believe what you are watching is real and accurate. If only all movies were this well cast and acted.
In short, Stewart proves that he has the chops to write and direct something more than just sharp satire. There are hints of that scattered throughout his screenplay here but by and large this is a sober affair that makes pains to show the sacrifice and determination of the world's journalists. I personally think there are more poignant stories out there to make that case but based solely on what we have here Rosewater is solid effort from this first time director and I eagerly anticipate what he chooses to film next.
★★★★ review by Tasha Robinson on Letterboxd
Jon Stewart's writing and directing debut looks on the surface like yet another tale of political oppression and uplift and the indomitability of the human spirit and whatnot, but its saving grace is that it's actually funny. Not throughout, and not too much, and the humor doesn't undermine the tragedy, or the serious political message, or the tearjerking final shot. But it does relieve the film of excess sincerity or a feeling of emotional manipulation. Stewart has a nicely light touch in the late going that balances out some of the first-time-director flashiness in the earlier parts of the film. Full review for The Dissolve here.
★★★★½ review by Michael Offerosky on Letterboxd
Jon Stewart makes a confident and self-assured directorial debut with ROSEWATER. The true life story is about an Iranian born Newsweek journalist, Maziar Bahari, who lives in London who while doing a story on the 2009 Iranian elections is held and tortured for being a spy. One of the reasons that Stewart directed the film is most certainly because of the personal ties that he has to the story. After all, Bahari was held on grounds of being a spy partially because of a clip from The Daily Show. Obviously, the Iranian government does not get satire. Stewart makes the story vital and sucks the viewer in. There are not a lot of stars in the film besides Bahari played with great charisma and humor even under the most dire circumstances by Gael Garcia Bernal. Add a cameo from The Daily Show's Jason Jones and you have the two most recognizable actors to a North American audience. Perhaps, this is why this film is not talked about more. ROSEWATER is not a minor film but one that deserves notice and attention. Do not let this one slip through the cracks. If you get a chance to see this on the big screen, take it. This is one of the best films of 2014.
★★★½ review by Raul Marques on Letterboxd
A solid and confident debut by notorious political comedian Jon Stewart. Despite losing pace after the main character's impriosionment, the story never drags too much. The recap/product placement sequence was pretty original as well as the twitter one. Although its heavy subject the moments of humor are well-placed and work as a relief for the audience.
★★★½ review by Andrew C on Letterboxd
"Wake up. These men want to talk with you."
Comedian Jon Stewart's only directing, producing, or writing credit, the 2014 political thriller Rosewater is still worth watching for a look at the account of journalist Maziar Bahari's imprisonment by Iranian officials after, of all things, an appearance on The Daily Show. It's a story about an oppressive dictatorship, but also about misconceptions and overreactions to free speech and political discord.
The movie is far from a comedy, but at the same time you can't help but laugh a little at the situation Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) was placed in, because of Iran's belief that his job was part of a larger plot against the country and that he was working with a spy. After a satirical interview with Jason Jones (who plays himself), and an apparent support of the electoral opponent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bahari is assumed an enemy of the state.
So, you could make the argument that this is a subtle dark comedy, based on the absurd Kafkaesque interrogation that most anyone would qualify as torture, for almost 4 months. Blindfolded constantly, Stewart uses the experiences in the memoir to create a similar feeling of anxiety and tension in a confusing and fearful scenario.
In the first portion of the film, as well, he reminds audiences of the contested 2009 election, and the brief moment that it seemed like democracy may win out over theocratic authoritarianism. Instead, quickly the regime clamps down power, and Bahari's life seems in jeopardy after he is jailed.
A faithful adaption of a memoir, while its message isn't very nuanced it's still a good one. You have to be impressed with Jon Stewart's first -- and so far only -- film to his name. He helps make a good story even more riveting with thoughtful and confident direction.
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