An uneven but easy to swallow tale of a captured journalist.
Back in 2013, Jon Stewart took the summer off from hosting the political satire series The Daily Show to make his directorial début Rosewater. Adapted from the book written by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari which recalls the 118 days he spent in an Iranian prison for being an accused spy. Stewart likely felt some obligation to make this film since it was on his show that Bahari was jokingly called a spy. And because Iranian authorities didn’t appreciate the humor, Bahari became a target for anti-Iranian intelligence. Rosewater gets points for attracting more public awareness to the situation, but unfortunately the film’s inconsistent tones doesn’t give the story full justice.
The film begins with Iranian authorities waking up journalist Maziar Bahari, played by the always brilliant Gael García Bernal, out of the bed he occupies at this mother’s (Shohreh Aghdashloo) home. Treated like a terrorist, these authorities rummage through his belongings and confiscate everything in sight, deeming Bahari’s The Sopranos collection to be pornography and claiming his Leonard Cohen’s vinyl to be Jewish propaganda. As each one of these wrongfully accused items are waved in his face, brief flashbacks show Bahari’s Western ties and the freedoms he once enjoyed. Stewart purposefully jumps the gun in the story, showing Bahari carted off in handcuffs without explaining why or even who is behind the arrest, perhaps foreshadowing the radical and illogical repercussions for the events that are about to unfold.
In the 11 days leading up to this arrest, Bahari works for Newsweek as a journalist reporting on the historical 2009 election where Iranians were able to vote democratically for the first time. During a rally, Bahari captures shocking footage of a man shot to death by a sniper and allows The Guardian to publish the video. This video footage combined with his appearance on The Daily Show was enough for the government to suspect Bahari of being a foreign spy, despite not having the evidence to support it. Thus, Bahari is arrested and spends the next 118 days blindfolded, tortured, and interrogated by Iranian forces who attempt to extract a confession out of him.
Despite the severity of what transpired, Rosewater is an easy pill to swallow. Stewart implies much of the violence without showing it and at times, even makes light of the situation. In particular, when Bahari dances around in his cell to the Leonard Cohen (a nod to the reference at the beginning) song “Dance to the End of Love” after speaking to his wife on the phone. Given Stewart’s background as a comedian, it’s not surprising to find this humor within the film, but because these lighter moments come after two dramatic acts, the tone in Rosewater feels uneven.
Another downfall of the film is the constant barrage of flashbacks used throughout, despite some being presented in an elegant way, such as Bahari walking down a street while images of his past are shown in the windows he passes. It’s a neat effect to provide details of his past, but the entire scene feels amateurish with a voice-over narration accompanying it. Some memories, such as those he recalls about his childhood during his imprisonment just feel unimportant. Other embellishments like Twitter hashtags that animate into a word cloud effectively illustrates social media’s role during political unrest. However, when they’re paired with cheesy inspirational music it feels like a movie moment, drawing attention to Stewart’s first-time director status.
Positive or negative, a film involving wrongful capture and torture has never been so easy to watch. While the film never patronizes, it does reduce the seriousness in some situations, turning a political drama into more of a dark satire. Perhaps worse, it attempts to be both without succeeding at either. Despite uneven pacing and other first-time director blunders, Rosewater demonstrates the way technology changed how we capture and share the truth, while reminding us (especially Westerners) that government repression is still very much alive in many parts of the world.