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Director: Jon Stewart

Writers: Jon Stewart (screenplay), Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy (book)

Stars: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer


Release date: November 14th, 2014

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: Gael Garcia Bernal.

Worst part: The stylistic flourishes.

Over the past decade, one man – picking apart globe-spanning wars, the global warming debate, social and cultural shifts, and the Global Financial Crisis – has fought tooth-and-nail to speak his mind. Keeping political figures, A-listers, and social icons honest, late-night TV satirist Jon Stewart has raised The Daily Show from middling returns to renowned ratings successes. Known for his groundbreaking monologues and charisma, it’s difficult not to become entranced by his mannerisms and viewpoints.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Gael Garcia Bernal.

Last year, Stewart stepped away from his hit news-comedy extravaganza to follow his dreams. Handing the reigns over to British Comedian John Oliver, Stewart spent three months (From early June to late August) directing and writing his first feature production. Rosewater, a movie with a title much lighter than its content, is a worthwhile experiment. Stewart places media analysis on a higher pedestal than anything else. The movie chronicles one of the past decade’s most gruelling true stories. Set in 2009, it captures a specific time in Iran’s history. That year, the country’s citizens locked horns over a major question: Who should be leading the country? President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, having driven Iran into multiple crises, was pitted against promising opposition hopefuls Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. We follow London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an expectant dad tasked with covering the election and civil unrest. Filming interviews with politicians and voters on both sides, his work pulls everyone together as the election reaches breaking point. As the conflict shifts from words to war, our camera-clutching reporter captures and publishes footage of a violent protest. From there, Ahmadinejad-leaning authorities seek to ruin Bahari’s immediate future. Threatened with ridiculous accusations, the government attempts to break our bubbly journalist.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Bernal & Kim Bodnia.

Overshadowing Stewart’s notable ambitions, Rosewater, from first inklings of its creation to release, has suffered major criticism from the Iranian Government and state TV hubs. Accused of consulting the CIA and top-tier Zionists, the media personality proves even his harshest critics wrong here. Certainly, the movie resembles a high-minded vanity project. Sporting his stark wit, watchability, and overwhelming intelligence, his first feature is essentially a two-hour rant against some of the world’s most despicable people. Adapting Bahari and Aimee Mallory’s memoir Then They Came for Me, Stewart has taken notes from Hollywood’s best and brightest. Ironically, having been jokingly accused of plagiarism by Ben Affleck, Stewarts’ feature stands proudly alongside Argo. Similarly to Affleck’s Oscar-winning effort, this political drama revels in its creator’s confidence, verve, and will to succeed. Crafting a highly liberal stance against global injustice and ignorance, the movie’s viewpoints on geo-politics and foreign policy ring true. Unafraid of the facts, Rosewater‘s post-9/11 commentary fits between jingoistic and patronising. Unlike most modern political-drama/thrillers, the movie revels in its smaller moments. The first act, outlining our lead character’s daring mission, crafts several thought-provoking dialogue sequences and enlightening touches. After local driver Davood(Dimitri Leonidas)’s introduction, Rosewater delves enthusiastically  into Bahari’s mindset. Driven by the truth, the movie’s protagonist is worth capturing on camera and sharing with the world. Despite the intentional tonal shifts, this political-drama works as a docudrama/historical account more so than a work of art.

“You have a real weapon and you choose not to use it.” (Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), Rosewater).

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Bernal & Dimitri Leonidas.

Despite the compelling story and characters, Stewart’s stylistic choices dilute Rosewater‘s potency. Throwing subtitles, news clips, hashtags, and flashbacks across the screen, his erratic flourishes distract from the message. In addition, the supporting characters, despite their emotional and thematic relevance, receive minimal development. Tackling biased news media and government policies erratically, the movie occasionally resembles  an extended Daily Show episode. In fact, show regular Jason Jones – an intrinsic part of the true story – re-lives his experiences here. Before crossing over into self-indulgence, the over-the-top first half gives way to the gripping and electrifying second half. Whilst Bahari is sent to Evin prison for treason, the movie rapidly switches from tepid political-thriller to meaningful prison-drama. Charting Bahari’s behaviour throughout his 118-day incarceration, Stewart’s direction transitions from manic to subdued to gritty. Threatened with life-long imprisonment and execution, Bahari’s story lingers in the consciousness. The opening, beyond describing rosewater’s spiritual powers, outlines Stewart’s agenda. Oddly enough, the title specifically refers to the lead torturer(Kim Bodnia)’s codename. Matching “Rosewater” at every turn, their spirited debates – referring to Bahari’s love of Western culture – are worth the admission cost. Bernal overcomes ethnic obstacles (a Mexican A-lister cast as a real-life Iranian subject) to envelop the role. Boosting his already-impressive resume, the underrated character-actor delivers a grounded and multi-layered turn.

Stewart, transitioning beautifully from late-night satire to political-thriller/docudrama, has his heart in the right place. His style, despite several overblown visual flourishes, matures throughout Rosewater‘s gripping second half. Defined by its raw emotional impact, Bernal’s magnetic performance, and inspiring prison-drama story, the movie makes for a commendable and spirited first effort. Walking the thin line between comedy and drama, its immense intelligence, brawn, and appeal are worth lobbying for.

Verdict: A heartening and worthwhile first feature.

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