It’s no surprise that Rosewater, Jon Stewart’s initial foray into feature filmmaking, is a political drama. The Daily Show host is a master of satire, using sardonic wit and intelligent insight to skewer governments, politicians, bureaucrats and the media during his fake news broadcast. But The Daily Show also has a certain loyal demographic that gives Stewart the freedom to test the boundaries of humor and newsiness. Rosewater is his attempt to appeal to a much larger audience, which ultimately results in a well-meaning if diluted film.
The film is based on BBC journalist Maziar Bahari’s best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival. During Iran’s historic 2009 presidential elections, the Tehran-born Bahari (portrayed by Gael García Bernal) left his London home to secure an interview in Iran with Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the primary contender against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After Ahmadinejad declared victory in the race hours before the polls even closed, the broadcast journalist captured footage of street riots and general unrest, which he then transmitted to the BBC.
Because the footage painted the Iranian government in an unfavorable light, the Revolutionary Guard arrested Bahari, a Canadian citizen, and accused him of spying for the West. He was detained for 118 days and subjected to both physical and psychological torture, conducted by a man whom Bahari nicknamed “Rosewater” (played by Kim Bodnia) for his choice of scents.
While many of the film’s actors are not Iranian—Bernal is Mexican and Bodnia is Danish—the casting “controversy” is a nonissue. The actors assume their roles expertly and master the mixture of an English-Persian accent used in the film. (It also helps that most Americans are not familiar with Farsi.)
The film adapts Bahari’s experiences, its subject treated with the utmost respect. There’s no doubt that the wrongly accused journalist is the docudrama’s hero, but as he’s put on a pedestal, Bahari becomes more archetype and less relatable on a personal level. Stewart and Bahari became friends through the ordeal, and Stewart helped Bahari’s wife keep the imprisoned journalist’s story alive in the international press. The director has admitted that the film arose from his guilt over The Daily Show’s indirect role in Bahari’s capture.
Just before the 2009 elections, Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones interviewed Bahari in Iran. With Jones playing himself in the film’s most meta scene, he jokingly refers to himself as a spy in the midst of the interview with Bahari. The segment is later shown to Bahari in prison as proof of his own involvement in “espionage.” The folly of trying to explain the interview and The Daily Show to his captor leads an exasperated Bahari to exclaim, “Why would a spy have a TV show?”
Humorous moments pepper the film, usually at Rosewater’s expense. During the arrest, he questions whether or not Bahari’s The Sopranos’ DVD is porn and a Leonard Cohen album is “Zionist propaganda.” The comedy also helps highlight the absurdity of Bahari’s situation and the complexity of Iranian culture. Such levity, as well as touches of magical realism—from Bahari’s memories projected onto buildings as he walks along a Tehran street to on-screen hashtags that show the use of social media in political protest—balance the film’s darker themes of political and religious persecution. Stewart should have included even more mystical moments and pushed the humor envelope further instead of just dipping his toes in the proverbial pool.
The film’s latter half focuses on Bernal and Bodnia’s cat-and-mouse exchanges, with Rosewater naturally winning the physical battles by subjecting the blindfolded captive to random beatings. Despite the torment, Bodnia’s performance still humanizes Rosewater; he’s not simply a sadistic torturer but a conflicted one, too, who must follow orders from his bosses. He’s also not the most worldly of men—he’s drawn to Bahari’s stories and even believes that Fort Lee, NJ is a Persian “massage playground.”
During his solitary confinement, Bahari is joined in his small, relatively clean cell by his dead sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) and father Baba Akbar (Haluk Bilginer), who encourages his son to remain “unbroken.” Both Baba and Maryam were previously imprisoned and eventually killed by different Iranian regimes for being communists. Their visits are a welcome break—for both Bahari and the audience—as the film loses steam during these imprisonment scenes (which aren’t grotesque or graphic). While the conveyance of monotony, and the fear of impending torture, is realized immediately through Bernal’s commendable performance, the script lingers here too long, the film languishing in tedium.
As a first-time director, Stewart is assured of the message he wants to present to the masses. He dutifully lays bare the evils of political oppression and human rights violations that often go unnoticed. But in his restraint, Rosewater lacks the punch of other politically minded films.
Director: Jon Stewart
Writer: Screenplay by Jon Stewart, based on Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo,
Golshifteh Farahani, Dimitri Leonidas, Claire Foy, Nasser Faris and Miles Jupp
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2014
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.