Public figures entering the film industry – particularly into the directing circuit – often attract a certain degree of attention that most filmmakers don’t receive. Even more often, these debuts are either critically lauded or viewed as trivial exercises Speaking specifically within the sphere of popular cinema, there are clear examples of successes and failures in executing such a transition. For example, Ben Affleck’s directorial career been well received whereas James Franco’s Faulkner adaptations are completely ignored, this conflation of personality and content serves as a potent example of the dangers in jumping into the director’s chair. Understandably, then, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut has created a certain fervour in film criticism and beyond. For starters, as the host of The Daily Show, Stewart had to take a leave of absence to make the film, with this lengthy break adding a sense of supposed value to the project from the start. In the end, the much-anticipated film isn’t bad by any measure. With that said, though, it has enough caveats, inconsistencies and poorly articulated concerns stemming it to be anything beyond ordinary.
It’s a recurring trend in American cinema to make a film set in a foreign country have an English-speaking cast, but this shouldn’t continue to be the norm. With Rosewater, Stewart conjures up a film set in Iran where the cast only speak English. The only problem with doing this isn’t remarkably complex, it’s simply the fact that the people of Iran don’t speak English as their first language. It shouldn’t be a huge issue, but its something that creates a perpetual dissonance throughout a film that is striving to be an accurate retelling of a recent series of events. There are elements of the film where this attention to detail is more than evident, but the inconsistencies throughout are what drag it down in the end.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Maziar Bahari with tenacity, a careful sense of pacing and a control of emotions that drifts from stoic to hysterical to comic – always in line with the scene. His performance, like many of his roles, is captivating and enrapturing. That said, the film struggles despite his presence. A lot of critics of the film have argued that Rosewater articulates Jon Stewart’s urge to abdicate himself from complicity in the arrest of Bahari – something that shouldn’t really be necessary considering the overtly unjust nature of the arrest. It’s easy to understand where the critics of Stewart’s film get this from. At times, it’s simply unnecessarily didactic – with characters spelling out the moral repercussions and indications in certain scenes – where things are obvious and implicit. This – beyond the dissonance between actors, the language spoken and everything else – remains the biggest issue of Rosewater; the constant lack of subtlety, in a film that needs it to distinguish itself from every US-directed political thriller in the Middle East released in the last ten years. Rosewater doesn’t do it.
Stewart’s US election coverage with Comedy Central has always gone under the title indecision. In Rosewater, the phrase re-emerges as perhaps the most palpable factor plaguing his directorial debut. This is simply due to the fact that Stewart’s film doesn’t ever seem to know what it wants to be. To a degree, the film is historical journalism – but it engages in entertainment far too much to be exclusively in line with that. The film has an astounding piece of cinematography for every Hollywood-level cliché, and a genuine portrayal of emotion for every more robotically expressed response. At times, Stewart’s film is doing brilliant things with its cast and the progression of the film. At others, it feels muddled and lost. The constant oscillation between these often polaric approaches to cinema result in a film that tears itself down before the audience has the chance to do so themselves. Again, there’s an inverse to every negative aspect of the film – but for every thing that Stewart does right there’s something he does wrong.
This week, Jon Stewart announced that he’s finishing up his version of The Daily Show after this year. If this is an indicator of the comedian’s decision to step up to more directing roles in future, Rosewater shows he’s either making a mistake, or he’s simply got a long way to go. The film isn’t something to regret watching, it just doesn’t satisfy as much as it could have with further care to detail and less appealing to cliché. Jon Stewart’s career has had an enormous impact on the entertainment industry. It’s just up to seeing if he’s able to translate this talent to the markedly different medium of film in the future.