I don’t want this to sound condescending, because I’m a big admirer of Jon Stewart’s work and admire his courage in taking on something as massive as directing a movie while holding down a full-time job.
So when I say that this is not bad for a first film, that’s meant as a compliment. It’s not even bad, as movies go in general. On a regular basis, I see many worse movies out there than “Rosewater,” Stewart’s sometimes affecting, sometimes overly earnest film about an Iranian journalist thrown into solitary confinement by a regime that thinks he’s a spy.
They don’t really think he’s a spy – they simply hate the freedom he has as an Iran-born journalist living in London. So they grab him while he’s in Tehran covering the rigged elections of 2009 for Newsweek and put him in solitary, except when they’re grilling him about his mission as a spy for the Western media. That four-month imprisonment was the basis of real-life journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir about his experience, which served as the source material for Stewart’s script for his directing debut.
Stewart does fine with the film right up until Bahari is grabbed by the Iranian government and tossed in jail. Until that point, “Rosewater” is a compelling tale of political courage: Bahari, whose father was imprisoned by the Shah of Iran, returns home as a reporter, only to face imprisonment by the people who replaced the Shah (who did the same thing to Bahari’s sister).
While in Iran (for Newsweek), Bahari (ably played by Gael Garcia Bernal) conducts a joke interview with Jason Jones of “The Daily Show.” Shortly afterward, Bahari is arrested. His captors have no sense of humor, however, and so the irony of arresting someone for talking to a fake journalist who joked about being a spy is lost on them.
Stewart’s task isn’t an easy one, and he struggles with it. On the one hand, he wants to convey the horror of that kind of imprisonment: alone, unaware if anyone in the world has any clue where you are, at the mercy of sadists and bullies who are trying to force you to confess to something you didn’t do. That movie could easily have amounted to torture porn.
Yet Stewart doesn’t want to minimize what Bahari went through. He has to show some of the punishment he endured, if only to show that Bahari did, in fact, endure. Even then, however, torture scenes, aside from feeling gratuitous, tend to be repetitive. So Stewart opts for a third way, with Bahari escaping his confinement into his imagination: specifically, into conversations with his late father who appears to him (and the audience). It’s a hoary device, one that feels well-intentioned, if under-thought.
So it is with Stewart’s larger point: that regimes that try to block information, hide truth and suppress free speech are not just evil, but fighting an uphill battle in the era of social media and instant connectivity. Using graphics similar to ones from “The Fifth Estate” and a handful of documentaries, Stewart conveys the idea that information wants to be free, that once unleashed into the Internet, it cannot be stopped.
Bernal carries the film on his slender but sturdy shoulders, while he has the perfect foil in Kim Bodnia, who plays Rosewater, his tormentor. Stewart makes the point that torturers also have bosses who make their lives miserable and wives with expectations to disappoint. It’s a bold choice because, frankly, I don’t know that many Americans want the opportunity to feel empathy for the guy who is torturing the film’s hero.
If Jon Stewart never makes another film, he can be proud of “Rosewater.” It is a serious film with flaws, but not a film with serious flaws. And it is anything but a vanity project.