Will Emmy champ Jon Stewart add Oscar to mantel with directorial debut ‘Rosewater’?

Jon Stewart took time off from “The Daily Show” last summer to make his directorial debut with “Rosewater.” He did double duty, also adapting “Then They Came For Me,” the memoir by Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari in which he recounts his almost four months of false imprisonment in his homeland for espionage. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the prisoner while Kim Bodnia is his interrogator in what is largely a two-hander with appearances by Shohreh Aghdashloo as his mother and Claire Foy as his wife back in London.  

The film from Open Road plays at Telluride this weekend before getting a splashy premiere at the Toronto film festival next week. It opens in limited release on Nov. 7. Based on the early reviews, Stewart, who has a staggering 20 Emmys for writing and producing his late night talker, could well find himself in the running at the Oscars. 

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Scott Foundas (Variety) was the most enthusiastic, calling the film “an alternately somber and darkly funny drama that may occupy the same geographic terrain as ‘Argo’ (to which it will inevitably be compared), but in most other respects could hardly be more different.” As he notes, “Stewart’s confident, superbly acted debut feature works as both a stirring account of human endurance and a topical reminder of the risks faced by journalists in pursuit of the truth, minus the caper antics and flag waving of Ben Affleck’s populist Oscar winner.”

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Steve Pond (The Wrap) found the film to be “a solid, quietly involving work about political turmoil in the Middle East, and the toll it takes on a free press. Like much of Stewart’s work, it’s smart and it points fingers in directions in which they need to be pointed.” However, he notes the film is “more earnest than Stewart’s TV fans might expect. And for much of its running time the film is not quite as sharp or energetic as you’d hope, possibly because Stewart the director is hardly the master the way Stewart the TV host is.”

As Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter) observes: “We know from the outset that the author survived to be freed and return to his wife in the West, so it’s only a matter of how his release was achieved after 118 days. The way the story unfolds, there really isn’t a message per se other than a general one about not giving up hope; the political and personal lessons here don’t seem particularly profound or instructive. Stewart and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski cover it all in a straightforward, watchable way, the performances are all sincere and solid and the situation is easy to respond to emotionally. But as a case history in the annals of political repression, it feels like a bit of a sideshow.”

However, for Eric Kohn (IndieWire), the film “suffers from the director’s underwritten screenplay and several misconceived narrative devices.” As he explained, “it’s also so committed to a good-natured attitude about the power of perseverance that the many shortcomings register as inoffensively well-intentioned rather than exclusively shallow. Imagine a rousing ‘Daily Show’ episode without the jokes.”

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