I, Spy: A misreading of The Daily Show lands a journalist in jail.
I, Spy: A misreading of The Daily Show lands a journalist in jail.

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The best way to describe Rosewater, the directorial debut of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, is by naming what it isn’t: Argo. The last Hollywood movie about Iran won mainstream approval (plus an Oscar for Best Picture) by placating its audience with chase scenes, overblown patriotism, and jingoist depictions of the Arab world. At every turn, Rosewater takes the opposite tack. The film is not without problems, most of which spring from a director whose confidence exceeds his skill level, but, unlike Argo, it has a sincerity of purpose that makes its faults easy to forgive.

In this film based on a true story, Gael García Bernal plays Maziar Bahari, a Canadian political journalist born in Iran and based in London, who travels back to his home country to cover the 2009 presidential election. After the incumbent Ahmadinejad wins a controversial victory, his secret police imprison Bahari and subject him to psychological and physical torture. His crime? The police suspect that Bahari’s a spy, based on a funny cultural misunderstanding—they missed the satire in his interview with, you guessed it, The Daily Show—though it seems more likely that they’re simply punishing him for producing coverage sympathetic to the revolutionaries.

On paper, it’s a crowd-pleasing story of hope triumphing over fear on a global stage, but Stewart’s filmmaking naïveté results in an amalgam of wildly shifting cinematic styles. The reverent notes he hits so strongly during the lead-up to the election—Stewart has as much sympathy for the revolutionaries as his protagonist—abruptly give way to the stark realism of the prison sequences. These changes in tone are justified by the script, but a coherent vision never emerges. Emboldened by his longtime success in television, Stewart knows exactly what he wants to say, but he doesn’t yet have all the tools to say it.

Still, his independent sensibility pays off in other ways. Rosewater is an American production, but its perspective is more humanist than Hollywood. Unlike Argo, which oversold America’s role in its heroic plotline, Stewart leaves his home country mostly offscreen. When Hillary Clinton’s talking head shows up in the final reel, it’s justified—it was her public interview mentioning Bahari by name that led to his release—but Stewart is careful not to linger on her role. Instead, he roots the film narrowly in his protagonist’s perspective. When Bahari is confined to the prison walls, so are we. When he imagines conversations with his late father, whose own imprisonment under a previous regime was a defining event in his son’s life, we see the two of them occupying the same cramped, physical space.

That’s not to say that Rosewater doesn’t have larger statements to make, and its celebration of democracy and the necessity of a free press are well-earned. These subjects have been the hallmarks of Stewart’s television work, which makes Rosewater a fitting if imperfect extension of his vital career. In filmmaking as in comedy, a little sincerity goes a long way.

Rosewater opens Nov. 13 in wide release.