Might Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," become the next George Clooney, director of liberal-minded political films? By the evidence of "Rosewater," Stewart's creditable writing-directing debut, the answer is "yes."
"Rosewater" derives from a true story that hit close to home for Stewart. When Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari flew to Iran to cover the 2009 election (and the subsequent protests sparked by suspicion of fraud and marked by violence), he also gave some interviews, including a satirical sit-down with "Daily Show" correspondent Jason Jones. Soon thereafter, Bahari was hauled into prison and locked away in solitary confinement, a trial broken up only by a series of interrogations and psychological and physical punishments.
Using as his basis the book "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival" by Bahari and Aimee Molloy, Stewart makes comprehensible for a broad audience the contemporary political situation in Iran, its historical context ("Revolutions are just like people. They have to grow"), and the personal history that weighs on Bahari (his father and sister having been persecuted: the former during the reign of the Shah, the latter during that of the Ayatollah Khomeini).
Stewart can be knocked for arguable compromises, including casting Mexican actor Gael García Bernal as Bahari and having the characters -- including a loveable driver played by English actor Dimitri Leonidas -- speak accented English, but these choices actually work in the film's favor. Bernal gives a typically charismatic star turn, supplying believable dramatic moments and a light touch to the comedic ones, and the dearth of subtitling makes the film more accessible -- as Stewart clearly longs for it to be.
The Kafkaesque opening sequence depicting Bahari's arrest gives way to local-color political journalism and eventually to Bahari's 118-day confinement in Evin Prison, where a blindfold accompanies sessions with a rosewater-scented male interrogator (the excellent Danish actor Kim Bodnia). Faced with paranoid accusations of being a "foreign spy," as well as credible threats to his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and pregnant wife (Claire Foy), Bahari attempts to hold fast under interrogation as his father once did when imprisoned for being a communist.
Stewart can be a bit overstated in his scripting and his direction, but he also wittily tunes in to the absurdity of Bahari's situation and makes potent use of scarily intense close-ups. Above all, and not surprisingly, media icon Stewart shows his deep belief in the almost holy power of media to bolster political change -- and he's not wrong. Armed with the "Dish University" of Tehran (an illicit cluster of world-reaching satellite dishes manned by the progressive protest movement), the support of the Twittersphere and the efforts of journalists like Bahari, the voice of the Iranian people hopefully holds its ground.
Rated R for language including some crude references, and violent content. One hour, 43 minutes.