Rosewater, film review: Jon Stewart's directional debut is short on entertainment value

Toronto Film Festival 2014: Gael García Bernal gives strong performance as Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari

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When Jon Stewart pretended to be an American spy while interviewing the London-based journalist Maziar Bahari for The Daily Show, little did he know that the jokey head-to-head would set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to the journalist’s arrest and incarceration.

Stewart took a sabbatical from hosting The Daily Show to make this, his directorial debut, based on the book that Bahari subsequently wrote about his imprisonment. 

Gael García Bernal plays Behari. The Mexican may seem an odd choice to play a Persian journalist but it’s to his immense credit that the transfer of nationality is seamless.

Two years ago Bernal excelled when he played a publicist working on the Chilean presidential referendum in NO. He has the aptitude and the intelligence for political roles and seems to save his better performances for when there is some political meat on the bone.

Here he plays the journalist as a straight-laced guy, who takes advantage of a Newsweek commission to cover the Iranian election to visit his mother.

Bahari is returning to Iran, where his father was arrested by the Shah for being a Communist. Proving that regime change and revolution does not necessarily lead to political change his sister (Golshifteh Farahani) was also arrested and killer for her political beliefs in 1980. So it’s something of a family tradition when Bahari is arrested.

The police arrive at his hotel room and ask if his DVDs of Passolini’s Teorema and box-set of The Sopranos are porn. The same accusation is levelled at a Leonard Cohen record. Stewart’s Daily Show humour comes to the fore when Bahari is shown a copy of Empire magazine with a scantily clad Megan Fox on the cover and finds it hard to rebuke the porn claim.

There is little evidence of humour in the next hour of the film. The action flashes back nine days to Bahari’s arrival in Tehran. He immediately befriends Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) a young guy who offers him a taxi ride from the airport. Together they go and investigate Tehran in the run-up to the 2009 election between incumbent President Ahmadinejad and challenger Mousavi. Archive footage is mixed in with the docudrama.

Unfortunately for Stewart, the problem with movies is that while the story is unimpeachable, films are judged on the quality of the direction and entertainment value - and in both these departments he falls short. After Bahari’s arrest and his meeting with his interrogator ‘Rosewater’ the film descends into a two-hander between the pair and we are served another (not particularly striking) take on the relationship between captor and captive.

Even stranger is that this sequence, designed to reflect Bahari’s state of mind in solitary confinement, develops into a slow-burn joke with a rather tedious punchline. What works on The Daily Show detracts here from the drama. Stewart’s desire to highlight Bahari’s isolation from the world means that he ignores the global campaign for his release until a rapid montage sequence splurges out the information. Like much of Stewart’s directorial debut it stokes interest without actually satisfying it.