Last summer, Jon Stewart took a break from "The Daily Show" to direct his first feature, and the first reviews of "Rosewater" have landed just before its just-announced premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. The story of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned and interrogated for four months in 2009 after his print reports and documentaries drew the ire of Iran’s repressive government, Stewart’s film grew out of Bahari’s appearances on "The Daily Show" itself, one of which was cited by his interrogators as proof of his collusion with foreign governments. Apart from Variety’s rave, the reviews are subdued but generally respectful, which might come as a relief to Stewart fans who’d hate to see him fail but would hate more for him to quit his day job. Given that Stewart’s absence was directly responsible for his temporary replacement John Oliver getting a show of his own, "Rosewater" can, it seems, only claim to be the second-best thing to come out of the hiatus, but that’s still not bad.
Reviews of "Rosewater"
Scott Foundas, Variety
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.
For a film about a journalist being unfairly held in solitary confinement by one of the globe’s most politically divisive governments, "Rosewater" is notable for its modesty and emotional restraint, for its principled refusal to sensationalize its potentially inflammatory subject matter. A certain narrative conventionality is perhaps inevitable with this type of material, but "Rosewater" is helped immensely by Gael García Bernal’s assured, lived-in lead performance.
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.
Steve Pond, the Wrap
Like much of Stewart’s work, it’s smart and it points fingers in directions in which they need to be pointed. But 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.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
This Open Road release, which opens on November 7 after debuting on the festival circuit, 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.