Earlier this week, I had a chance to screen Rosewater
, Jon Stewart's directorial debut, which opens nationwide on Friday. Rosewater
, which was also written by Stewart and is distributed by Open Road Films, tells the story of Tehran-born Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari
's 2009 imprisonment in Iran while covering the presidential election between former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, based on Bahari's autobiographical account of his ordeal, Then They Came For Me
The biggest reason I was eager to see the film had everything to do with the fact that Stewart directed it, but after seeing it, the thing that really carried the movie was the stellar performance of Gael García Bernal, who played Bahari. I'm neither a movie critic nor a film expert, but at least to me, that speaks well of Stewart—like the baseball umpire who nobody notices because he called a good game.
On the surface, Rosewater seems like the perfect story for a Hollywood movie: An Iranian-born Western journalist returns to his home country only to face imprisonment from a totalitarian regime for the crime of reporting the news. Break out the flags and patriotic chest thumping and self-satisfied moral superiority, right? Maybe add a few scenes with savage violence from the Iranian government, build some suspense by crafting a narrative about frantic efforts to release Bahari from prison, and above all else make sure that everybody leaves the film feeling good about how much better we are than them because we value freedom and they don't.
That's pretty much what I expected when I sat down to watch Rosewater, but as I'll discuss below the fold, rather than following that easy formula, Stewart delivered a movie that is less about us vs. them than it is the slow triumph of hope and optimism and told the story by focusing on the humanity of its characters rather than by inventing suspense.
We know at the outset that Bahari, who was held for 118 days, will ultimately be released from prison, but while he is held captive, his captors try to break his will, forcing him to make an absurd confession that his job as a Newsweek journalist was really a cover for being a CIA operative responsible for dispensing propaganda.
(As an aside, the media criticism contained Bahari's response to this accusation provides one of the more amusing moments in the movie: "The American government doesn't control Newsweek magazine. And, to be honest, it's not even worth controlling. This weekly model of magazines is completely outdated. There are better ways of doing propaganda—through the internet, in the blogs, Twitter. There's many things. The game has changed completely.")
Bahrain's captors press him to explain his travels around the world and to the United States, but on this, Bahari ultimately scores a triumph over his captors, explaining that his travels throughout the world weren't part of a CIA mission, but were rather personal indulgences to feed his addiction to "massages" (yeah, those kind of massages). His main interrogator, played by Kim Bodina, is absolutely riveted as Bahari tells him of an imaginary cornocupia of massage parlors in Fort Lee, New Jersey, temporarily forgetting that he is supposed to be a totalitarian ideologue as he listens to Bahari's accounts of made-up sexcapades.
Rosewater is not a heavy-handed, dogmatic movie, though its sympathies clearly lie with Bahari and not his captors, as they should. But it doesn't gloss over the fact that before the Iranian revolution, the government was equally repressive—and was supported by the United States. Bahari and his sister were both imprisoned by the post-revolutionary Iranian government, but his father was imprisoned by the the Shah, and in one scene, America's support for the Shah—including the CIA-backed coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh—is detailed.
Stewart certainly could have chosen an easier story to tell than Bahari's, or he could have embellished it to turn it into a Hollywood suspense thriller, but he chose the more difficult path of telling a subtler, but more honest story. Stewart does, however, find room to sprinkle moments of humor throughout the movie—even including a brief appearance of The Daily Show. It's a strong directorial debut for Stewart and probably won't be his last.