At the TIFF premiere of Jon Stewart's directorial debut, Rosewater, he made cracks about Ghostbusters, playfully chided star Gael Garcia Bernal, and made fun of his own lack of experience behind the camera. In short, he was the Jon Stewart we all know: the Daily Show host with a comedian's needy soul. When he announced that he'd be embarking on a film project, the subject matter — an adaptation of journalist Maziar Bahari's account of his imprisonment in Iran during the Green Revolution — and the first trailer all seemed to suggest an incredibly serious, even harrowing film. It feels strange to say it, but the last thing I was expecting out of a Jon Stewart film was humor.
As a first-time director, Stewart doesn't always succeed with Rosewater. There are some amateur elements to the film, particularly anything having to do with relaying information from the news or social media, where it often looks like a graphic designer got overzealous at his first day on the job. And it's tempting to think of how a more seasoned director might have coaxed something truly powerful, rather than functional, out of Bernal's performance. Bernal is a talented actor who occasionally seems adrift here, though there are early scenes with Dimitri Leonidas as Bahari's entry point into the Iranian protests, that really spark (though that might be more Leonidas's doing; more of him at the movies, please).
More pertinently, Stewart is not always the most expert at balancing disparate tones. But the fact that there are disparate tones at all came as something of a surprise.
The film plays like a straight-up ripped-from-the-headlines Middle East potboiler for the first hour or so. Bahari is covering the 2009 Iranian election, and the protests that followed, and when his video footage of rioting hits the national news, he's detained and imprisoned by Iranian officials. But the longer Bahari remains in prison and subject to interrogation, the more freedom the story takes on in terms of tone. Bahari has imagined conversations with his dead father, himself imprisoned and interrogated by the state for his Communist affiliations. Not gauzy, Malickian "Father, always you are with me" stuff. Wry, probing, sometimes sarcastic confrontations with a man whose resolve Bahari can't seem to match. Kim Bodnia, as the interrogation "specialist" takes on a kind of hybrid monster/buffoon role, as clueless of the crimes of which he's accusing Bahari (who's essentially jailed as a U.S./Zionist spy working through Newsweek). As Bodnia's character makes one dumb-sounding accusation after another (plumbing Bahari's Facebook likes for suspicious ties to Anton Chekhov), Bahari becomes more and more struck, and even emboldened, by what schmucks these guys are. Things eventually get pretty jokey, with cracks about the magazine industry and the state of New Jersey— not to mention an extended riff where Bahari feigns an addiction to hookers (just go with it) — that might well be coming from a Daily Show segment.
These comedic interludes are played as moments of levity, and even eventually as thematic counterbalance, but they never manage to break free of a story that is still well aware of its own grave implications. There's a part of me that longed for Stewart to make a truly bold choice and direct the whole thing as a farce. M*A*S*H for the modern age. That's a lot to be asking of a first time director, I realize. As was clear from hearing Stewart talk about the film afterwards, his paramount concern was telling Bahari's story faithfully, and he repeatedly talked about how the humor in the film is all rooted in Bahari's book.
There's a kind of contradiction in Stewart's career, or at least a friction between what's just for laughs and what's honest-to-God political agitation, and he's often been frustrating in the way he's tried to talk his way around both of those elements. The Daily Show is an engaged, often angry push-back at the absurdities and awfulness of the news, both foreign and domestic; until, sometimes, it isn't, and Stewart will claim they're just making comedy. There's a little bit of that friction in Rosewater, where the comedy bits and the dramatic beats don't always blend as smoothly as you'd like them to. But it makes for a hell of a lot more interesting film to discuss than I was expecting at the outset.