Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” hiatus was well worth his absence, and not simply for John Oliver’s increased screen-time. Stewart took leave to direct his debut film, “Rosewater.” Based on journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me, it details Bahari’s 118 day incarceration in Iran following an interview with “The Daily Show.” Poignant, tragically comedic, and insightful, it’s an outstanding adaptation of Bahari’s experience, and fantastic directional debut from Stewart.
During the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, journalist Maziar Bahari traveled to Iran, providing coverage of the campaigns. While on assignment, Jason Jones interviewed Bahari in Iran. During the interview, he joked that Bahari was a spy. After Bahari’s arrest, he was shown the clip from “The Daily Show” and asked about his involvement with espionage. During the 118 day incarceration, an interrogator scented with rosewater questioned Bahari, hence the title of the film. Maziar never learned his captor’s name.
Jon Stewart’s directional debut glistens with polish, presenting a biographical piece exquisitely. Maziar Bahari’s coverage of the Iranian presidential elections feels genuine, despite being fictionalized. Gael Garcia Bernal plays a convincing Bahari. His interactions with local Iranians seem conversational and relaxed, conveying real-world banter. There’s also a remarkable tension retained throughout the film, a commendable feat considering Bahari’s fortuitous fate is well-known.
The real gem, however, is “Rosewater’s” ability to remain darkly comedic despite the serious subject matter. Freedom of the press is a major issue, and many journalists haven’t been as lucky as Maziar. Much as he does each night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart presents a compelling issue with wit and sarcasm, in this case rather subtle and dry. Primarily, this derives from the dialogue between Bahari (Bernal) and Rosewater (Kim Bodina). Despite constant, legitimate denials from Maziar, Rosewater insists the journalist is a spy. The boneheaded Rosewater prods Bahari about mundane, off-topic subjects, including New Jersey and Maziar’s sex life. Ultimately, Bahari uses Rosewater’s dim-wittedness against him, and there’s a hilarious ironic conclusion allowing the journalist his freedom.
Yet, “Rosewater” isn’t a comedy, not nearly to the proportions of Stewart’s traditionally riotous “The Daily Show.” The audience guffaws are replaced by small chuckles. The true story of Maziar’s torture is no laughing matter, and the film ends on a sentimental, poignant note, offering statistics to mull over after shuffling out of the cinema. In relaying the experience as a dry comedy, however, Stewart accomplishes his goal: to inform viewers while preventing a complete loss of faith in humanity. “Rosewater” is the breed of film that leaves the viewer entertained, educated, and yearning for additional information. It’s a stunningly masterful production from first-time director Jon Stewart, and hopefully not his last cinematic project.