Often on fire behind his 'The Daily Show' desk on TV, Jon Stewart turns out to be a merely okay director, judging from this sincere yet serviceable political drama. It's the smallest of disappointments: why is this gonzo figurehead paying it safe? Nonetheless, Stewart's hardcore fans may forgive him, especially since 'Rosewater' is cosmic repayment to one of his guests, who found himself imprisoned as a result of the media exposure.
London-based Maziar Bahari was covering Iran's 2009 election and subsequent protests when he taped a comic sketch with 'Daily Show' correspondent Jason Jones, who was impersonating a boorish American spy. Less than a week later, Bahari found himself detained and abused in a Tehran jail by humourless counterintelligence agents who didn't get the joke – for well over three months.
Stewart's own screenplay, based on Bahari's 2011 tell-all book 'Then They Came for Me', is strongest when it's playing up the absurdity of the situation, tapping star Gael García Bernal's quickness in an early interrogation when he's asked to defend his DVD collection. ('The Sopranos' – is it porn?) Even after 'Rosewater' becomes frightening when the blindfolds come out, Stewart lands subversive laughs via the deft performance of Kim Bodnia, portraying a fearsome Iranian 'specialist' who falls for a whopper of a lie about corrupting New Jersey massage parlours.
But at the heart of 'Rosewater' lies a serious tale of tragedy, a miscarriage of justice. The film settles into the kind of sobriety you've seen too often: a persevering mother (the dignified Shohreh Aghdashloo) holds strong through her tears; Bahari has imaginary cell-block conversations with his inspiring father, himself a prisoner during an earlier era. Stewart could have unleashed his wit – or at least his sluggish camera– during these moments. Give him another movie or two. He's made a promising start, with blackly comic greatness in his grasp.