Jon Stewart (born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) is a comedian with a small cult following. He is widely known for his portrayal of “Elsie’s lover” in deleted scenes from The First Wives Club. But did you also know that Stewart hosts a nightly news program on basic cable? The Daily Show (which it turns out is only produced four nights a week) has afforded Stewart a modicum of clout in the industry, and as such the performer’s first foray into film authorship has just seen release. Rosewater is a film to which Stewart has deep personal ties, though such a connection does not necessarily guarantee a compelling film.
Based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy, the movie follows Bahari (played in the film by Gael García Bernal), an Iranian-born Canadian journalist, as he travels back to his home country for the 2009 Iranian presidential election primarily between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. After seemingly fraudulent results declare Ahmadinejad the winner, protesters take to the streets. In the madness Bahari is arrested as a spy, in large part because of a facetious Daily Show segment he participated in with correspondent Jason Jones (who appears as himself). Bahari spends the next 118 days being interrogated by a man he dubs “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia). The remainder of the film documents Bahari’s personal struggle for strength against a brutal force less interested in truth than being vindicated.
Almost every character in the film is Iranian, which makes the casting both puzzling and concerning. García Bernal is Mexican, while Bodnia is Danish. In fact the only primary actor in the film truly of Iranian descent is Shoreh Aghdashloo, who plays Bahari’s mother. This kind of race-blind casting is common in Hollywood (though it is getting less-so), but it is still surprising. García Bernal is an excellent actor (easily the best part of my least favorite segment in Amores Perros) and he plays the physical and emotional frustration required in Rosewater very well, but surely there are actors of middle-eastern origin who could have turned in an equally strong performance. Perhaps that matter does not ring so strongly for everyone, but it is surprising that it was not important to a man as progressive as Stewart.
Once you get past the “brown-washing” of the film (at least Bahari wasn’t played by a white man I guess), Rosewater is a rather successful piece. It is the story of a man discovering his own resilience and capacity for resistance, after living for so long in an environment where such traits were not necessary. We see Bahari butt heads with an imagined version of his late father (Haluk Bilginer, who happens to be Turkish) who implores his son not to give up throughout his imprisonment. This relationship is most of what drives the audience through Bahari’s extended stay in Evin Prison, which takes up the second half of the movie, but doesn’t exactly engage the viewer. This part of Rosewater is very straightforward. Torture – even the non-violent sort – is bad, and Stewart spends just a little too long hammering this point. This is precious runtime that could be better deployed in other areas.
Areas such as the movie’s excellent depiction of a little-portrayed piece of global society in its first half. The political situation in Iran is fascinating but difficult to reconcile with the freedom we experience in other parts of the world. That difficulty makes it even more important that we attempt to understand it. Maziar’s arrival in Tehran and journey through the city exposes certain truths about that experience, even if they are Hollywood versions of that truth. It is comparable to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, though less personal and harrowing. And it’s a step in the right direction.
Speaking of direction (what a segue!), Stewart (who also adapted Bahari’s book for the screen), makes a couple interesting choices in his helming of the feature, most notably a surreal expositional montage of visuals appearing on the exteriors of English buildings as Maziar walks the streets of London in the early moments of the film. But then there are choices like including three prologues, and using clichéd shots of sunlight striking Maziar’s face in prison. But these are natural impulses by a first-time director, and forgivable in the grand scheme of the film.
Rosewater is a slight film that benefits from really intriguing source material. It may be that Stewart is too close to the story, seeing as how his program is responsible for it. He is so concerned with telling the story that he forgets to do so effectively. The next step in Stewart’s filmmaking career will be an important one. Perhaps Rosewater was a film he just felt like he had to make, but I am curious to at least see what (if anything) he turns his eye toward next.