Jon Stewart has always attracted attention in both political and media spheres; his incisive and outspoken views have rattled the cages of some, and broken those of others wide open. Rosewater, his directorial debut, is his attempt to show us that he is also an important presence behind the camera as well as in front of it.
Based on actual events in 2009, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an Iranian-Canadian journalist, is imprisoned and interrogated on the accusation that he is in fact a spy. Maziar keeps telling them the mundane truth, but it isn’t what his harsh incarcerators want to hear. He must find a way of getting back to his wife and unborn child, or else he may be forgotten inside entirely.
From the very start, Rosewater is sumptuously designed but bears a shaky, near-atonal style – but with an actor as imperishably charming like Bernal at the centre of the frame, once the film kicks into the meat of the plot following a somewhat lumbering opening third, top-heavy with political asides and narrative ambling, we’re treated to perhaps the best comic double-act of the 21st century: Maziar and his interrogator Haj (Nasser Faris) run circles round each other in ever funnier ways, their relationship growing from hostility to something resembling mutual respect over the course of the journalist’s imprisonment. These scenes, in which Haj tries to get inside Maziar’s head, toe the line between terror and lightness deftly, and are the movie’s strongest points, and is where its lithe spirit soars; a strong througline of humour runs through the movie, giving it a lyricism that similar imprisonment or survival movies like Unbroken lacked sorely. Such highs are now and then hampered by a dithering score, and poorly judged on-screen effects (flying Twitter hashtags are still a thing?), but when Rosewater has its head on its shoulders, it becomes a gripping political statement with genuine sentiment.