Jon Stewart is one of the most revered television personalities in America and judging by the reception he received at the Debate Gala of his new film, Rosewater, he's held in equally as high regard this side of the Atlantic. He's obviously a man who engenders a huge amount of goodwill for often providing a lone voice of sanity in a media world where that is a surprisingly rare commodity.
So it's with a heavy heart that I report that his directorial debut is something of a disappointment. It's far from a disaster, but Stewart, with his incisive political commentary that is delivered in his trademark erudite fashion, has set a bar for himself that he's unable to attain in a new medium.
Mexican actor, Gael Garcia Bernal plays Maziar Bahari, a London-based journalist assigned by Newsweek Magazine to cover the 2009 Iranian presidential election. The popularity of challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi threatens an upset to the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the excitement is building in Tehran. Upon arriving in Iran, Bahari finds that the election's results are questionable to say the least, and as public disquiet increases, the police's response is more and more heavy-handed. Feeling a duty to report the truth, Bahari soon has a visit from the Iranian authorities, accusing him of being an American spy, and finds himself detained indefinitely at the bleak Evin prison.
At this point the film becomes a two-hander, a battle of wills between Bahari and the officer charged with proving his espionage background. The relationship between detainer and detainee has been on screen many times before and Stewart doesn't bring anything new to the dynamic. Bernal is good as Bahari but his lack of visual change over the course of his 118 day ordeal betrays the unpleasantness of his situation, and the humour that Stewart attempts to inject into the situation undercuts the tension he creates.
The strength and importance of the story means that I was never less than engaged, but I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that there was a better film to be made of it, and it lacked the searing conviction that Stewart frequently displays on The Daily Show. He also uses a number of stylistic flourishes that can at times feel gimmicky. Still, it's worthwhile to remember that, despite Stewart's exalted status, it's a debut feature and needs to be approached as such.