by Ken Carrell
TL;DR – Jon Stewart’s filmmaking debut has its fair share of amateur mistakes that any filmmaker would make but still manages to vibrantly bring to life the story of an investigative journalist covering the 2009 Iranian election who is captured and kept in solitary confinement. Gael Garcia Bernal and Kim Bodnia lead the film with fantastic acting and elevate the film from average to worth watching.
If you’ve been living under a rock or willfully turning off the TV or leaving the room anytime Jon Stewart’s Rosewater trailer comes on or is mentioned, then you should know what this film is about. But for those rarities of you out there that haven’t, I’ll give you the big plot points.
Rosewater is the true story of London-based journalist Maziar Bahari’s (Gael Garcia Bernal) trip to his homeland of Iran to cover the 2009 Iranian presidential election when the foundation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s incumbency suddenly cracked when Mir-Hossein Mousavi became a serious contender. Bahari traveled to Iran and met Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), a cab driver and revolutionary seemingly leading a revolutionary group called Dish University. It wasn’t a real university, but rather a collection of illegal satellite dishes strategically placed on the roof of a building to be out of sight but obtain all of the illegal television programming banned by the Iranian government.
Following Bahari’s interview on The Daily Show, some of the government’s benefactors, Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) and Haj Agha (Nasser Faris), kidnap Bahari and hold him in solitary confinement while they try to undo the damage to the Iranian government that investigative journalism would cause. A humorous exchange exposes Rosewater’s inability to comprehend the difference between spies and comedians and he and Haj rush to seal off the ensuing protests by forcing Bahari to falsely confess to “publicly lying.” Assuming that we can believe that this facet of the film is fact, it’s quite clear that the Iranian government did everything it could to subvert the law and keep the public blissfully unaware of it. They keep him in solitary confinement for four months and the only things that kept him alive were his memories of Baba Akbar (Haluk Bilginer), a communist revolutionary related to Bahari, and his pregnant girlfriend (Claire Foy) back home in London. Given the recency of this story, it’s easy to tack on the factors relating to its political function in the public sphere and forget to look at it purely as a film in and of itself.
This is Jon Stewart’s filmmaking debut. He both wrote the screenplay (adapted from Bahari’s book “Then They Came for Me”) and directed. For a debut film, he’s definitely a cut above most filmmakers, having access to resources that Joe Schmo doesn’t (evidently, J. J. Abrams aided Stewart on the script). Despite this, Stewart does make a few amateur goofs that will naturally go away with experience. Stewart is a very capable filmmaker if this one is any evidence and I sincerely hope he keeps making films (but Stewart, if you leave The Daily Show for 3 months again, I will never forgive you).
The biggest issue with the story lies in the portrayal of Bahari’s imprisonment. It just didn’t feel like his confinement was nearly as bad as the film wanted us to believe. I think Stewart was trying to be conservative in his portrayal, not daring to go too far to one extreme for fear of a public backlash of sorts, but the resulting picture doesn’t feel real. More intense imprisonment has been shown on Oz and that show took place in America. Bahari was locked up in Iran and if the American media’s portrayal of the Middle East is halfway as accurate as reality, it would have been even scarier than Oz.
On the directing side, Stewart, for a first time filmmaker, has a pretty solid grip on the process of making the words on a screenplay morph into a picture on screen. But, as a first time filmmaker, as most first time filmmakers, he overlooks some finer details that are not lost on those with eyes trained to find them. The biggest flaw is in the scene where Rosewater carries out orders to beat Bahari senseless after his fake confession did nothing to quell the now red-hot rebellion. Once Rosewater starts wailing on Bahari, everything happens off camera. You never see Rosewater strike Bahari and he could have been slapping a Naugahyde pillow for all we know. Since I’m 1/8 Sadist on my father’s side, I wanted to see Rosewater actually striking Bahari.
Okay, that was some dark comedy. In all seriousness, the scene would have been so much more powerful, so much more real, so much more gut wrenching and emotional if we actually saw it happen. Stewart admitted in an interview that he felt no shame in delegating to different departments to handle aspects of the filmmaking process with which he wasn’t familiar. Choreography and stunts didn’t seem to be in this group. It could have been the most memorable scene in the film. Sadly, it’s rather forgettable now.
All of this isn’t to say it’s a bad film. It’s not. I’ve been ripping on Stewart kind of hard only because you hurt the ones you love and I want to break Stewart’s arm (I haven’t missed an episode of The Daily Show in 3 years, it’s actually kind of unhealthy). It’s disappointing that the film isn’t better because I just wanted it to live up to the quality that The Daily Show manages to crank out factory-style. But the film is, at the end of the day, pretty solid. The acting is superb. The titular character (Kim Bodnia) steals the show as a man who conveys an eerie confidence but is terrified under the surface, an appropriate conveyance considering he’s a walking metaphor for the Iranian government: scared and doing whatever it can to keep the “peace” (quotes emphasized).
Will it win any Oscars? No. Is it worth watching? Yes. Go buy a ticket. Now, if you’ll excuse me, The Daily Show starts right……nnnnnnnow.