The category of Iranian prison movies with feel-good endings is a small subgenre, and one that “Rosewater” is likely to have all to itself for the near future. With his feature film writing and directing debut, “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart clearly wanted to make a people-have-the-power message picture that resonates at least as much with American youths as longtime students of political repression in the Middle East. That transparent desire to make the material as accessible as possible to U.S. moviegoers—starting with the old-fashioned notion of having all the Iranians speaking to each other exclusively in English—results in an overly slick take on potentially tough subject matter. For better or worse, torture-themed films don’t get much easier to take than this one.
The initially easygoing protagonist, who spends the second half of “Rosewater” in solitary confinement, is Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an Iran-born, London-based journalist who runs afoul of the Tehran establishment while covering the 2009 presidential election for Newsweek. You could almost picture the film as Stewart’s make-good for getting Bahari locked up, since it’s strongly suggested that a comical interview segment Bahari participated in on “The Daily Show” was a principle reason he was accused of being an American spy. His questioner and torturer (an excellent Kim Bodnia) plays back “The Daily Show” segment during the interrogation and seems clueless to the fact that the show’s correspondent Jason Jones isn’t really a U.S. spy, even though he claimed to be one in the taped bit with Bahari. Not to read too much into Stewart’s motivations for making the film, but this figure of “Rosewater,” as the unnamed torturer comes to be known, could be a stand-in for anyone who didn’t get one of “the Daily Show’s” jokes.
Bahari actually offended the Islamic regime for many more compelling reasons than playing straight-man in a comedy sketch, like filming the bloody results when a hopeful uprising after the election results in a Tiananmen Square-like crackdown on protesters. In adapting Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me,” Stewart has chosen to ignore his subject’s previous history of activism and agitprop journalism to make him a cheerful naïf who only gradually comes to understand the importance of taking a stand, a deviation from reality designed to make Bahari more of a universal stand-in for the kids he hopes to inspire.
Saying that “Rosewater” isn’t very funny might seem like a deeply churlish complaint for a film dealing in such life-and-death, bare-knuckle subject matter. But it’s the type of film that might have benefitted from some gallows humor, although that’s clearly not what Stewart had in mind. He occasionally allows some humor, but with mixed results. Recurring jokes about New Jersey feel like arbitrary stabs at irreverence. On the other hand, the most amusing scene is right out of Bahari’s book, as the prisoner decides to play head games with his suddenly intrigued keeper by plying him with made-up stories about how he traveled around the world not as a spy, but as a connoisseur of erotic massage parlors.
Speaking of happy endings, then… we know Bahari gets out alive, which drains a lot of the suspense out of the second half, even though Stewart wisely chooses to keep the action entirely in the prison from the moment he’s incarcerated until near the end, only belatedly allowing a reveal showing just how extensive the international efforts to get the journalist sprung from jail are. When the very opened-up proceedings of the pre-prison sequences give way to what is essentially a two-character drama, you hope for more of a cat-and-mouse game than you ultimately get, since it’s really only in creating that massage-parlor fantasy that Bahari is able to give as well as he gets.
As a director, Stewart makes some choices that manage to be both au courant and cornball, like representing the uprising via a series of tweets and hashtags that rise up through Tehran in an overlay of colorful text. It doesn’t help that Howard Shore’s score swells with vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding uplift in these moments of what we know are false hope. That buoyant music will return again at the close when Stewart leaves us on a note meant to keep us believing that this tyranny, too, shall pass.
Leading man Bernal has such a contagiously winning smile in the early stretches—and again towards the conclusion, when he regains his faith—that you can just about forgive Stewart’s choice to make him a bit more happy-go-lucky than the character is in real life. An option that’s likely to inspire more debate among readers of Bahari’s memoir is Stewart’s call to eliminate most of the physical beatings and focus on the head-trippiness of his sentence—an entirely defensible choice, although one that might have demanded that the torturer be better at mind-games than he’s portrayed. For his part, Bodnia is effective as a banality-of-evil guy who’s just trying to do (and keep) his job. His noncommittal reaction shots as Bahari spins those sexual fibs for his benefit represent some of the finest acting in the movie, more dramatic moments notwithstanding. But it feels odd that the movie is named after his character, since there’s little delivery on the promise that the captor’s dilemma might be given nearly as much weight as the captive’s.
There are plenty of small, effective choices along the way, like a passing scene of roadside prayer that establishes a sarcastic and politically progressive sidekick character who assists the very secular Bahari as an unexpectedly devout Muslim. But Stewart also makes some rookie mistakes, like believing a good way to open up the claustrophobic prison scenes is to have Bahari converse with the apparition of his dead father… again and again and again (he’s not the only director who didn’t get the memo about the ongoing moratorium on ghost confidantes).
In the end, maybe it’s not so surprising that Stewart has made his debut with a feature this earnest, one laden with just barely enough humor to keep critics from accusing him of completely abandoning his ironic sensibilities, since Stewart’s nightly causticity on Comedy Central is obviously a thin veneer overlaying deep reserves of idealism. And, you know, God bless a passion project, especially one that succeeds in large measure in removing the veil over a part of the world that may have as many interesting ideological divides as our own, public lockstep or no. If only Stewart had as much faith in his ability to deliver punchlines as a dramatic filmmaker as he does in his day/night job. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Telluride Film Festival.