[This is a re-post of my Rosewater review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The film opens today in limited release.]
Gael Garcia Bernal plays incarcerated journalist Maziar Bahari in Rosewater, but writer-director Jon Stewart is the true lead. For fans for The Daily Show, his personality shines through every episode, and it’s one that has become wearied over the years as news coverage has declined at an exponential rate. His hopes for a better world have become a life raft, and his refusal to give into cynicism is what keeps his directorial debut afloat even if it veers into being earnest to the point of cheesiness. Rosewater may not have much depth, but Stewart’s personal connection to the story—both professional and ideological—give it an abundance of heart.
On June 21, 2009, Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari (Bernal) was arrested in Tehran, Iran under suspicion of being a spy. Bahari had come to Tehran to cover the elections, and in the eleven days leading up to his arrest, he conducted interviews with locals, and also did an interview himself with The Daily Show. Jason Jones (who plays himself in the movie) playacted dumb and asked Bahari if he was a spy, and Bahari, aware that the program was satirical, brushed it off and talked about the positive commonalities between American and Iran. However, when the video aired and surfaced online, Bahari was arrested, blindfolded, and only knew his interrogator (Kim Bodina) by his scent of rosewater. During his Kafkaesque imprisonment, Bahari mentally survives by imagining conversations with his father and sister, both of whom had been imprisoned by the government in the past.
Stewart is unafraid of these dramatic flourishes with the imagined conversations being the least of the film’s sentimental aspects. Early in the movie, Bahari’s narration tells us about his mother and sister while walking down the street, and images of those family members are projected on the storefronts behind him. Later, when the green revolution is taking off, Stewart loads up the screen with hashtags. Stewart also conveys his positivity in more subtle ways like showing how closely the Iranian democratic process mirrors our own when it comes to voting. There’s an abundance of sympathy, and while it can be corny (e.g., at one point, Bahari imagines his father saying, “You must leave here a man,”), it doesn’t feel cloying.
The stability comes from Stewart refusing to back away from the harshness of Bahari’s torture, not by making it incredibly violent, but by making us empathize with the circumstances. Watching Rosewater, I was consistently aware of how terrified I would be if I was I was blindfolded and I knew someone could beat me at any moment. At least with your eyes open, you might see the hit coming. The blindfold emphasizes not only Bahari’s powerlessness, but also the upside-down nature of his imprisonment where he doesn’t know if his ignorant captors will ever release him.
Beyond its emotional core, the movie does touch on notions that should be familiar to Daily Show fans. The movie abhors dogma, ignorance, and Bahari is a hero because he’s both a journalist and an idealist, and neither one diminishes the other. Once Bahari is in prison, we see where the personal and the political meet. Bahari is not a political prisoner, but he’s been imprisoned because of Iran’s politics. Even his interrogator is depicted as a real person with professional goals and frustrations rather than a phantom. And in between the personal and political aspects, Stewart, as only he can do, works in moments of surprising and welcome humor.
Rosewater is an unexpected debut for Stewart but it’s also perfect for him. Although it’s not a satire, it comes from the same place as his comedy. When I attended a taping of The Daily Show last October, Stewart came out to do a brief Q&A with the audience. Someone asked him how he deals with the depressing 24-hour cable news cycle. A look of exhaustion spread across his face, but he still made a joke about persevering. His show has become a duty, and his own way of bearing witness even if it’s using a choir to tell Fox News to go fuck itself. Rosewater isn’t quite that abrasive, but it does show Stewart’s heart as well as his potential as a cinematic storyteller.