Jon Stewart Dry Hot Iranian Summer
Jon Stewart’s Dry Hot Iranian Summer

Directed by: Jon Stewart
Written by: Jon Stewart
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jason Jones, Dimitri Leonidas, Arian Moayed, Haluk Bilginer

Synopsis: A journalist is detained in Iran for three months and brutally interrogated in prison.

Why it could succeed:

Whenever I begin my way-too-early advance predictions for the next Academy Awards barely after the current ceremony has concluded, I always start by looking up three names: Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin, and Megan Ellison. Generally speaking, the most high-profile movie those three producers have coming up the pipeline should always be considered serious Oscar contenders by any pundit worth their salt. So what are their prized racehorses for this year? Ellison has Foxcatcher, which Editor Clayton Davis profiled earlier this month. Weinstein will be gunning with Big Eyes, another serious awards prospect covered by Kristen back in March. Scott Rudin’s arguably most likely contender is Rosewater, the directorial debut of Jon Stewart. Yes, that Jon Stewart.

I think we all suspected it was only a matter of time until the famed host of The Daily Show would try his hand at feature filmmaking, but the harrowing true story of a journalist’s 118-day imprisonment and torture in Iran over false accusations was probably not what most of us had in mind. In actuality, Stewart has a bit of a personal connection to this film. In 2009, The Daily Show ran a segment called “Behind the Veil – Minarets of Menace,” a skit about how Americans perceive Iran. BBC journalist Maziar Bahari was one of the interview subjects who was staying in Iran for what was supposed to be weeklong coverage of the elections. Instead, the reporter was arrested on suspicion of espionage and thrown in prison. He was tied up, blindfolded, and violently interrogated by a man Bahari could only identify by his distinct rosewater smell (hence, the title). One of the main pieces of evidence the Iranian authorities claimed against him was his appearance on that Daily Show segment! The “American spy” they accused him of consorting with was actually the show’s correspondent Jason Jones.

He was eventually released after international pressure and later met up with Jon Stewart again (watch their follow-up interview here), and bringing this story to the big screen became a passion project for Stewart ever since. He finally got his chance to write and direct the film – based on Bahari’s book Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival – last summer, and took three months away from the show to complete it. The last episode he hosted before taking off was dedicated to explaining this film and why he became attached to it:

 

It’s kind of an amazing story, really, and I get the sense that he’s doing this for no other reason than that he feels this needs to be told. Whatever Stewart’s lack of experience will mean for the finished product, I think it’s safe to say that there won’t be a trace of calculated awards-baiting cynicism in his approach to the material.

Want proof? For a first-time director, he sure garnered a lot of goodwill from the cast and crew involved in it. Yes, I know, a film’s production team praising their experience doesn’t necessarily mean that the shoot was actually a success, but an Oscar-nominated actress did not have to personally approach Jon Stewart and tell him, “You were born a director. You do what all the great directors do.” And if he’s as personable to the voters as he was to his Rosewater colleagues on the promotion circuit, you’ve got a lot of support for this movie to succeed.

For the lead role of Maziar Bahari, Stewart decided to cast the underrated but very talented Mexican actor Gael García Bernal. Despite being part of several art house hits and award-winning films in his career, Bernal has never even come close to an Academy Award nomination for himself. The role of Moloojoon, his mother, will be played by House of Sand and Fog’s Shohreh Aghdashloo. Some of you will think that featuring those two actors in the most prominent roles without an awards-baiting star in sight might be a problem for this film to get awards recognition, but I’m thinking the opposite. Looking back at the Best Picture winners over the past ten years, how many of them were actually headlined by Oscar darlings and recognizable names? The most high-profile actor in 12 Years a Slave was the only recently-emerged Michael Fassbender, Ben Affleck was considered awards and box office poison for years before his slow comeback culminating in Argo, and no one in America had ever heard of Jean Dujardin or Berenice Bejo prior to Cannes 2011. If a contender catches on with voters it won’t matter who’s starring in it, and such a breakout hit will give them the opportunity to put Bernal in the spotlight after over a decade of really good work. Not that such a thing is uncommon with the Oscars; sometimes AMPAS puts their talents in the spotlight right out of the gate, and sometimes even the best and brightest have to wait a while. Funny enough, Stewart himself is going to be a bit of a Schrödinger’s Cat in that regard: simultaneously a longtime creative force and aiming for a big debut.

You know, now that I think about it, this is going to be a big year for The Daily Show and its most notable alumni. You’ve got Jon Stewart directing a possible Oscar contender, Steve Carrel possibly on his way to his first Academy Award nomination if not a win for his performance in Foxcatcher, and Stephen Colbert announced as David Letterman’s replacement on The Late Show (I guess the #CancelColbert activists got what they wanted after all!). It looks like the stars are aligning for the entertainment industry to give these men their due in a major way next year…

Why it might not:

Jon Stewart Directing
I know, I know, these pictures are crap, but they were the best I could find, believe me…

Then again it’s hard to fault anyone displaying skepticism towards a movie by Jon Stewart since he is, after all, a late night comedy show host making his directorial debut. What will be his approach to this material? Is he good at depicting events like this on film? Is he a visual director or someone who brings out the best in actors? We have no idea since Stewart has never directed a film before and I struggle to think of any kind of precedent for this (readers, feel free to educate me in the comments if there has been). We don’t even have an official image to go off of.

I mean, sure, the cast and crew loved working with him and he has a deep personal affection for this story…but that actually might be a hindrance. Sometimes it’s good to have a bit of distance from the subject of your movie, lest it seem hagiographic or too in love with itself. And how many breezy, amicable production phases have resulted in forgettable disappointments versus truly great movies that came out of disastrous shoots? What is that old saying…“Art from Adversity?” Even if he avoids those pitfalls (plenty of great movies have also had harmonious making-of stories, I’m sure), there’s also the problem of what exactly this movie is going to be about. I don’t mean story-wise, but on a deeper level, thematically. Okay, so you have a journalist swept up in a country going through major political upheaval and suffered greatly due to a misunderstanding. Again, powerful stuff, but why would I need to spend two or so hours watching that story depicted on film? I’m not saying something worthwhile can’t be mined from Maziar Bahari’s tale (I also have not read the book, so again readers, if any of you can enlighten me…); I’m just not sure what that could be just yet.

I think back to how Paul Greengrass portrayed the true events of United 93 and Captain Phillips and how hard it was for him to justify their existence beyond somewhat simplistic, if admittedly very well-crafted, tribute. Both movies obviously received a decent number of Oscar-nominations but neither of them became mega-contenders.

Will the backlash from the Iranian media accusing Stewart being part of a “Zionist” conspiracy hinder this film’s chances? Probably not, but hey, might as well let you know that – surprise, surprise – they don’t approve of this film.

Oscar Potential:
Picture (Gigi Pritzker, Scott Rudin and Jon Stewart)
Director (Jon Stewart)
Lead Actor (Gael García Bernal)
Supporting Actress (Shohreh Aghdashloo)
Adapted Screenplay (Jon Stewart)
Cinematography (Bobby Bukowski)
Film Editing (Jay Rabinowitz)