Open Road Films is having a sweet summer with crowdpleaser “Chef,” and as Oscar season begins this weekend with Telluride, then Toronto in September, the company may have a banner Fall season ahead.
It was no surprise to see Jon Stewart’s directorial debut “Rosewater,” a retelling of Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) 118-day incarceration in Iran in 2009, on Telluride’s lineup this morning. That’s because Toronto, where the film screens next month, did not bill the political drama as a premiere.
Ahead of its festival tour, the film screened last night for select critics. First reviews, which don’t exactly portend unanimous acclaim, are up. Some critics wonder how the film would be received if the director were an unknown rather than a media celebrity whom everyone, especially Hollywood, adores.
The punishing ordeal of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari — imprisoned for 118 days on charges of espionage — is brought to the screen with impressive tact and intelligence by writer-director Jon Stewart in “Rosewater,” an alternately somber and darkly funny drama that may occupy the same geographic terrain as “Argo” (to which it will inevitably be compared), but in most other respects could hardly be more different.
Largely a two-hander between Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) and the interrogator who puts him through a gauntlet of soul-crushing mindgames, Stewart’s confident, superbly acted debut feature works as both a stirring account of human endurance and a topical reminder of the risks faced by journalists in pursuit of the truth, minus the caper antics and flag waving of Ben Affleck’s populist Oscar winner. Strong reviews and smart, targeted marketing should help this Nov. 7 Open Road release find its niche with politically savvy adult moviegoers, and perhaps a dark-horse position in the awards-season derby.
As a movie, “Rosewater” — based on real life incident in which Stewart’s own “The Daily Show” inadvertently played a part — suffers from the director’s underwritten screenplay and several misconceived narrative devices. The portrait of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who covered the divisive 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek before getting detained by the country’s government for over 100 days following an appearance on Stewart’s show, never manages to transform the material into a satisfactory drama.
It’s never the wrong time to protest tyranny, unjust imprisonment, torture and totalitarian tactics. Late-night talk show star Jon Stewart’s debut as a feature film director is motivated above all to do just that and does it in a capable, straightforward manner. But while the issues of political oppression “Rosewater” deals with remain relevant in places all over the world, the jailing, rough interrogation and release after four months of a young Iranian journalist at the time of the 2009 presidential elections just doesn’t seem that timely or urgent given the hailstorm of insidious outrages that have taken place in the Middle East since that time. This Open Road release… will get loads of attention based on the celebrity of it writer-director. But if this very same film had been made by an unknown director, it would pass in the night with only scant notice.
The film understandably sets aside Stewart’s trademark barbed humor in a story that needs to be told without mockery or laughs, and it’s also more earnest than Stewart’s TV fans might expect. And for much of its running time the film is not quite as sharp or energetic as you’d hope, possibly because Stewart the director is hardly the master the way Stewart the TV host is.