What kind of director is Jon Stewart? That's what I was most curious about at last night's Toronto Film Festival premiere of Rosewater. The Daily Show host had very publicly taken three months off and handed his day job over to John Oliver last summer so he could direct his first feature film, about the you-can't-make-this-up imprisonment of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari in Iran. Stewart had come to the project by way of the Daily Show's own involvement in Bahari's arrest.
Correspondent Jason Jones, doing his asshole schtick and claiming to be a spy, interviewed Bahari in Iran right before the 2009 presidential election and the ensuing violent protests over what many thought was the falsified re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That Daily Show tape was then presented to Bahari in his 118 days of imprisonment and torture as evidence that he was a spy. Stewart had covered the story daily during Bahari's imprisonment, as Bahari's wife led an international campaign for his release, and then interviewed him once he got out. Stewart clearly feels passionate about fighting oppression and protecting journalists, but he's said that "the original impulse" to write a screenplay about it, and then get behind the camera, did indeed come from "my own feelings of guilt and atonement over what happened to him in Iran."
In the movie, Stewart shows Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) squeezing in an interview with The Daily Show on a day when he's running around interviewing Ahmadinejad's spokesman, as well as rebel supporters of the opposition who are educating themselves via illegal satellite dishes. Jason Jones makes an appearance, reenacting both the on-camera interview and the behind-the-scenes dialogue where he encouraged Bahari to play along with the joke. Stewart also includes the part where Bahari's interrogator — whom he nicknamed Rosewater after his scent, because Bahari was blindfolded most of the time — confronts him with the Daily Show video and Bahari tries to explain that it was for a comedy show. Needless to say, Rosewater doesn't get the joke. "Why this man claim to be a spy if he is not a spy?" Rosewater wants to know. "Why would a spy have a television show?" Bahari tries to counter.
Rosewater isn't Stewart's Dr. Strangelove. He ditches the biting satire of his TV show and instead concentrates on a respectful and straightforward depiction of that time in Tehran and of the real-life absurdity Bahari experienced. Within that are great flourishes of absurdity, such as Bahari dancing in his cell to music only he can hear, or when his interrogator goes through Bahari's belongings and shoves each of them in his face. Pasolini’s Teorema? Porno! The Sopranos? Porno! Leonard Cohen LP? Jew! And there may be signs of a future auteur in Stewart's inventive use of voice-over; he projected scenes from Bahari's life onto walls in London as Bernal tells Bahari's backstory, of how his father and sister both died in prison after being accused of being Communists. Reactions have been mixed. The Guardian called it "dreary," but Variety praised Bernal's performance as Bahari and thinks it's a dark-horse awards contender. I was into it and say give the man some time. As he introduced the movie, Stewart told the audience what he told the crew before filming, and they're words worth keeping in mind: "We're gonna go to Jordan, it's gonna be the summer, it'll be 100 degrees, it'll be Ramadan, we're gonna shoot the film backwards. The good news is, I've never done this before."