I ran into a producer and Academy voting member after this morning’s smash screening of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s impressive writing and directorial feature debut, Rosewater. He – and his wife – were raving about it, but also perplexed by a handful of early mixed reviews of the gripping political drama that had created some negative buzz among festgoers here even before the movie had its first screening (when it World Premiered Friday night at 9pm). “We were telling other friends of ours that we planned to see Rosewater and they immediately said they had heard it wasn’t great and were not enthusiastic about going. Strange. It was a tremendous film,” he said. That seemed to be the general reaction of the early morning Telluride crowd who picked off every single seat in the very large Werner Herzog theatre at 9AM this morning. They rewarded Stewart’s first effort with a heartfelt standing ovation when star Gael Garcia Bernal, the man he plays Iranian born journalist Maziar Bahari, and Stewart were introduced at the post-screening Q&A. I am not sure where these early critics saw this film, but it might have been better to make them see it with the rest of us. Based on the reaction inside the Zog today, I think it could have been a tactical error. It’s an enormously timely (WAY timely) and important movie that should be experienced in a theatre, as is the case at Telluride. You could feel the emotion in the crowd, so who needs critics anyway? It certainly points out the delicate nature of launching a film, particularly one as good as this, at a festival. Any festival. It will head next to Toronto.
Yes, it’s a tough film at times to watch as much of it deals with the psychological and political torture of Bahari in Iran at the hands of his interrogator Rosewater (actor Kim Bodnia, brilliant in a role originally targeted for the late James Gandolfini). But it is given an immensely satisfying and smart cinematic treatment by Stewart, who met Bahari after he appeared on his show (an earlier sketch Bahari participated in helped lead to events surrounding his incarceration in solitary confinement in Iran). The repressive country accused this Iranian-born journalist of being a “CIA-Zionist spy” after he returns to Iran from his current home in Britain (leaving his pregnant wife behind for what he thought would be a short time) to cover the controversial (rigged) Presidential elections of 2009. And I am sorry critics who sent this fine film off on the wrong foot, but this is a film that not only deserves to find an audience (Open Road releases it on November 7th), but also would be worthy of awards attention. Will it bring two-time Oscar show host Stewart back to that venue in a different capacity? I have no idea, but his film at least deserves to be in the conversation. However, it is extremely tough to market politically-themed films so Open Road, a savvy, relatively new distributor should take it slow. But there can be no question that Bernal ‘s performance is of such a high caliber that I am instantly adding him to list of Best Actor contenders (of which there are about 22 — crazy year in that category). This is the performance of his career. Bodnia deserves supporting recognition as well in what Stewart describes basically as a “two-hander”. Hopefully, Open Road can find the right audience, just as Rosewater seems to be doing with each subsequent showing here at Telluride. This film is so pertinent to what is going on today, with the capture and torture and even killing of journalists, that you could use that old warhorse phrase ‘ripped from the headlines’.
But Stewart, proving he is much more than a one-or-two-trick pony, is too smart to turn this into a didactic tale of a man’s torture for simply reporting what he sees as the truth. It is probably not surprising that, at times, it is also slyly funny, particularly in a scene where Bahari tries to turn the game around on Rosewater by describing some highly sexual (but made up) tales of massages that he said he got. Newsweek magazine is also the butt of a few well-placed jokes. But the film is impressive in weaving in many different tones from searing political drama, to humor, to strong emotion to survival. At Friday’s patrons picnic I asked Stewart about the experience of taking those months off from The Daily Show in order to make his debut behind the camera (he also produces along with Scott Rudin and Gigi Pritzker). He called his work on the TV series ephemeral and said even if he has a bad show, he knows he can always come back the next day and make everything right again. He seemed a little nervous about the debut of his first film though since he explained that “this is it, it’s done,” and for better or worse, this is the work that will be etched in stone for him. Different medium, different meaning for this talented man.
At the Q&A, Stewart explained why he got involved: “The truth is Maziar and I became friendly after his release, and he came on our show, and whenever he came to New York we would go have breakfast at this little place and we started talking about the book he was doing and he was gracious enough to send it to me and see if there was someway we could turn it into a film. So it began sort of slowly,” he said adding that he wasn’t particularly well-versed in the film business and sent the book out to several screenwriters, but found their pace did not match the urgency he felt in getting this on the screen. So, he wrote the script himself. “It’s not the kind of film that should come out 20 years from now. It is the kind of film that should come out now,” he said. And acting as his own critic about his remarkably assured directorial debut?: “It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t know you suck at it.”