By Eric Kohn | Indiewire August 28, 2014 at 6:14AM
Jon Stewart may be best known as one of the finest satirists on television, but his directorial debut "Rosewater" magnifies another tendency lurking beneath the jokes: a sincere desire to demystify international problems and celebrate efforts to solve them.
As a movie, "Rosewater" — based on real life incident in which Stewart's own "The Daily Show" inadvertently played a part — suffers from the director's underwritten screenplay and several misconceived narrative devices. The portrait of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), who covered the divisive 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek before getting detained by the country's government for over 100 days following an appearance on Stewart's show, never manages to transform the material into a satisfactory drama.
But it's also so committed to a good-natured attitude about the power of perseverance that the many shortcomings register as inoffensively well-intentioned rather than exclusively shallow. Imagine a rousing "Daily Show" episode without the jokes. "Rosewater" is lacking in sophistication, but its attitude is infectious.
Real Life Vs. Drama
Which doesn't mean that Stewart has made a great movie. The misguided decision to have his Iranian characters speak in accented English is the least of the flaws among a muddled assemblage of storytelling tropes. Within the first 20 minutes, we're treated to a number of half-baked attempts to energize Bahari's tale: During the character's introductory voiceover narration, Bernal walks the Tehran streets as animated faces from his past beam down from above.
As he recalls his family's troubled history during the Iranian Revolution in which his father was imprisoned and never caved, the old man's voice echoes Bahari's own. Later, as Bahari eagerly covers protests against the election results — in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's landscape victory was deemed a fix — Twitter hashtags spreading word of the outcry beam forth from the journalist's screen and swirl through the streets. "The Daily Show" can get away with playing fast and loose with its visual approach, but in "Rosewater" they're a distraction.
It doesn't help that Stewart never settles on a singular tone. Opening scenes in which government agents accuse Bahari of collecting porn by sifting through his collection of movies and music register as comedy; other scenes bluntly tell the story in predictable terms.
Whenever Bahari manages to defy his captors, "Rosewater" transforms into an enthusiastic look at the prospects for change in Iran in contrast to the failed attempts in earlier decades. But to that end, its finest moments emerge from the pileup of media reports and documentary footage of the streets.
Together, they showcase a tension between the powerful real-life story behind the events — initially chronicled in Bahari's own tome "Then They Came For Me" — and the lightweight drama written around them. Bahari's imaginary dialogues with his late father, conducted to pass the time in his vacant cell, have a restrained theatricality that rank among the movie's best written moments. But his sentimental exchanges with his wife (Claire Foy) and mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) reek of inauthenticity.
After opening with Bahari's detainment before flashing back to the weeks leading up to it, "Rosewater" spends the bulk of its time exploring his time in solitary confinement. There are some involving scenes as the government tries desperately to break Bahari's will, making veiled threats at his mother and pregnant wife, but mostly the movie stumbles through a series of encounters between Bahari and a gruff, singleminded interrogator (Kim Bodnia) who throws every accusation possible as Bahari in the hopes of getting a rise out of him. For every intriguing moment when the government seeks to break his will, "Rosewater" falls prey to obvious celebratory statements, as if to remind audiences where it's headed ("Revolutions are just like people," Bahari announces, "they have to grow"). That overzealous quality pervades much of the script, though its positivity isn't disagreeable, just basic.
The Saving Grace
Despite the aforementioned stylistic overkill, "Rosewater" avoids any particularly advanced filmmaking trickery during its critical moments, which enhances the pared-down nature of Bahari's captivity. Howard Shore's ruminative score doesn't do the melodrama any favors, but the soundtrack also includes lively samples of Middle Eastern hip hop that enhance Stewart's emphasis on a new era of self-expression in a society steeped in oppression.
The movie's real saving grace, however, stems from the always likable Bernal, a natural at playing sincere, committed men divided between personal and professional duties. With the election scandal as a backdrop, it's impossible not to see reverberations of the actor's role in the far superior Chilean film "No." But while Pablo Larraín's Oscar-nominated political thriller forced the actor to keep a straight face, Stewart gives Bernal the opportunity to show his exuberant side. One scene, in which he prances around his cell to the tune Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" playing in his head while a befuddled official watches from afar, ranks among the highlights.
Yet even such bright points are less intriguing than the meta-narrative of story behind the movie. Stewart recreates the interview Bahari conducted with "Daily Show" contributor Jason Jones, who reprises his role in the events even as we see him break his goofy character off-camera. "I'm the asshole here," he tells Bahari in between takes where he jokingly accuses the journalist of being a terrorist. It's almost as though Stewart were speaking through him to offer his mea culpa. But in a larger sense, that scene (and other passing references to the show by the government) speak to a telling contrast between Western media's room to play and the lack of such freedoms in more restrictive societies.
Still, "Rosewater" offers nothing on par with the more severe indictments of Iranian persecution in the movies directed by its citizens. Mohammed Rasolouf's "Manuscripts Don't Burn," to take one recent example, finds a number of local journalists (deemed "intellectuals" by the government) scrambling to avoid torture and death. Rasolouf, who was banned from his country for years, offers a far less idealistic assessment about the prospects of rebellion than anything in "Rosewater." Filmmakers like Rasolouf and fellow countryman Jafar Panahi (currently living under house arrest and making movies in defiance of a national ban) showcase the challenges of self-expression in Iran through the work itself. "Rosewater," also a showcase for resilience, lacks such subtleties.
But Stewart at least manages to position his happy ending in a reasonable context. His climactic scene, focused on the hope of an empowered people unwilling to stand down, makes a pretty compelling case. The director settles on a closing image that's about as close to an artful moment as the movie can muster. Like Stewart's show, his simplistic message points to savvier insights about the value of speaking out. But in this case, a single punchline isn't quite enough.
"Rosewater" opens in several cities on November 7. It premieres next at the Toronto International Film Festival.