“The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart may be known for his late night antics but the political pundit is ready to reveal his directorial skills with the debut of his feature, “Rosewater.” The film, which was to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday night, received mixed reviews from critics who caught the ripped-from-the-headlines drama at the Telluride Film festival last week.
The film, based on the New York Times best-selling memoir, "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and Survival," tells the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was captured by the Iranian government while covering the 2009 election protests . He was released after 118 days in prison.
Stewart has a surprising connection to Bahari’s capture. In 2009, “The Daily Show” sent correspondent Jason Jones to Iran to report on the elections. In the segment called "Persians of Interest," Jones played a spy who interviewed Bahari along with two prominent Iranian activists (who were all in on the joke). Soon after it aired, all three individuals were captured. The footage was used in court as evidence Bahari acted as a spy for the West.
Stewart befriended Bahari after his release and wanted to adapt his memoir into a screenplay. After looking for a writer for four months to no avail, Stewart decided to take on the project himself. Stewart wrote and directed the film, which was shot last summer in Jordan during an extended break from “The Daily Show.”
“We didn’t have much time,” Stewart told the Associated Press. “We didn’t have much money. It was 95 degrees. It was Ramadan. I had never done it before.”
Stewart’s directorial debut has been met with mixed feedback. Variety described the film as “superbly acted” and Stewart’s shooting style “simple” and “direct.” James Rocchi of Film.com lauded how parts of the film shot in Jordan replicated Tehran “extraordinarily well.” And he commended Stewart for the “sneaky, smart, permitless shot-from-the hip footage” that was actually shot in Tehran.
Besides the technical work surrounding the film, Rocchi said Stewart should be commended for “having actual guts and conviction in his choice of story to tell.”
Still, Stewart’s first-go at filmmaking didn’t impress some critics. Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter said the film was “emotionally accessible” but felt “like a bit of a sideshow” and lacked urgency.
“For a good hour, you're trapped in the prison with the two men, a situation that seriously restricts the drama's cinematic possibilities,” McCarthy said.
Eric Snider from Complex Magazine said the film had solid intentions but Stewart couldn’t “find a way to make the story connect on an emotional level.”
Jason Gorber of Twitch agreed. While Stewart’s “passion for the project comes out in almost every frame of film,” Gorber called the feature a “disappointment,” describing it as “a slightly watered down version of what's clearly an engaging and important narrative.”
Rocchi was lighter with his criticism: “As a director, Stewart’s judgment could use a little fine-tuning." He specifically cited a scene in which Twitter hashtags like #vote and #freedom are seen floating in cloud bubbles to show public outcry over the Iranian election results, calling it “over-directed to the point of unintentional comedy.”
Eric Kohn from Indiewire agreed: “'The Daily Show’ can get away with playing fast and loose with its visual approach, but in ‘Rosewater’ they're a distraction.” Chris Willman from The Playlist called the scene “both au courant and cornball.”
Despite the film’s foibles, critics agreed the overall message surrounding the power of human resiliency endured.
“While not quite the masterpiece I was perhaps unfairly hoping for,” Gorber said, “this directorial debut from one of the great comedic minds of this era is still something well worth seeking out.”
“Rosewater” is to begin a limited theatrical release Nov. 7 in the U.S.