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The talk-show host makes his feature writing and directing debut with the political drama "Rosewater" (opening Friday), and many initial reviews have commended his sure hand in bringing the story of Maziar Bahari, a journalist accused of spying and imprisoned in Iran for 118 days, to the screen.
The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan says: "'Rosewater' is a harrowing and inspirational survival story. But it also gives off more than a whiff of dark comedy — one whose subject is bureaucracy and the banality of evil." Stewart "does an impressive job of balancing the story's tonal shifts, largely keeping the melodrama at bay while at the same time modulating the film's surreal humor."
O'Sullivan adds that the two lead roles — Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari and Kim Bodnia as his interrogator — are "acted superbly."
The Associated Press' Jocelyn Noveck calls "Rosewater" a "clear-headed, sensitive and thoroughly impressive directorial debut." Even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, "Stewart keeps the tension taut throughout." One of his best decisions, Noveck says, was casting Bernal, who "manages a potent mix of determination and sensitivity, courage and yet clear vulnerability and increasing fear, all tempered with impishness, too." Bodnia, meanwhile, "avoids easy caricature."
New York magazine's David Edelstein writes, "'Rosewater' sounds earnest, one-note, relentless — something you'd watch out of a sense of duty. But it turns out to be a sly, layered work, charged with dark wit along with horror." Although "innocent people don't make the most dramatically complex protagonists, and 'Rosewater' might have been even richer if its focus were more on [Bodnia's] title character … the film is still impressive."
Entertainment Weekly's Joe McGovern calls the film "a gripping drama, smartly calibrated for Western audiences who still need an education in the bright, progressive, fight-back impulses in Iranian culture." The first half of the film "is stronger than its periodically indulgent second," McGovern adds, but "Rosewater" gets a lift from Bodnia, who "deserves to have his name learned by Oscar voters."
"Rosewater" is not without its detractors, however. Among them is the New Jersey Star-Ledger's Stephen Witty, who says the film is "competently made, but "Stewart can never quite answer the question: Why this man's story, of all the ones that should be told? And why now, five years later?" Witty adds, "A movie like this needs to find its own singular reason for being. That 'Rosewater' cannot do."