By Scott Feinberg
On Friday evening, Telluride Film Festival moviegoers became the first members of the public to see the fruits of the three-month hiatus that Jon Stewart took from The Daily Show in the summer of 2013 — during which John Oliver’s solo career took off — when the world premiere of Rosewater, Stewart’s feature directorial debut, unspooled at the Galaxy Theatre and was met with warm applause.
Stewart, who also penned the film’s script — which he adapted from London-based journalist Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy’s 2011 book Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival, about Bahari’s 2009 return to his native Iran to cover the heated Ahmadinejad-Mousavi election for Newsweek and his subsequent 118-day imprisonment — was on hand before the screening to help introduce the film and after it to participate in a Q&A alongside its star, Gael Garcia Bernal, that was moderated by journalist Mark Danner. He said he was excited to be at the fest and, judging from the applause he received, festivalgoers were clearly excited to see him.
The dark drama, which Stewart manages to sporadically inflect with his incomparably dry humor, will be released by Open Road on Nov. 7. It is clearly a deeply personal project for him; it seems clear, from various reports — including an interview that Stewart gave to The Hollywood Reporter this week — that he felt he had to tell Bahari’s story after learning that the man’s imprisonment happened, in part, because of his participation in a tongue-in-cheek interview with Jason Jones for Stewart’s Comedy Central show. (Apparently satire doesn’t translate for everyone in Iran.)
In his opening remarks, Stewart told the audience that had packed the middle school auditorium that is converted into a theater each year: “I won’t speak very long because we’re in a town where oxygen is thin and bladders are full… But this is an awfully special night for me… in the nicest middle school auditorium — this ain’t New Jersey! … I had one goal and that was to honor Maziar’s story and to tell it with integrity.”
There is no question that the film, which reportedly had a $30 million budget and was produced by Scott Rudin and Gigi Pritzker, does that. And, at a time when the drums are constantly beating for military action against Iran, it is a helpful thing to be reminded about the history and complexities of that nation (some of which were recently dealt with in Argo, as well), where much of the leadership and much of the population have greatly differing worldviews.
Is Rosewater, which derives its name from the nickname that Bahari assigned to his interrogator (Kim Bodnia), a flawless film? And is it a slam-dunk for awards consideration? The answer to both questions is most certainly not — but few first films are. Instead, it is, like virtually every episode of The Daily Show that has made Stewart one of the most trusted men in America, an attempt to get people to eat their vegetables (to learn and care more about the world around them) by hiding them in their ice cream (laughs). And, for his efforts, Stewart deserves to be commended.