Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” an effective directorial debut.
Real evil is so much more boring than fictional evil. In fact, most evil in this world can be categorized as simple ignorance and dissatisfaction rather than a desire for oppression and wanton destruction. It is born out of complacence, fear, self-interest and doubt.
I suppose it’s easier to blame an outside force, a supernatural darkness that influences our actions, but the truth is humanity is the evil it sees in the world. It is also the good. “Rosewater,” a new film by Jon Stewart, based on the memoir “And Then They Came for Me” by Mazair Bahari, examines these themes with sincerity and grace. Bahari is a London-based Iranian journalist who was imprisoned in Iran after the 2009-10 election protests, in part due to participating in a comedy bit for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
He was accused of being a spy for the CIA, the Jews, and anyone else the Iranian government found to be working in opposition to the Ayatollah. The film recounts the days leading up to his arrest, the situation in Iran at the time, and gives insight into the inner workings of the political prison system in that country. It is a solid directorial debut for Stewart, who makes only a few missteps, and is an engaging film for anyone with an interest in Iran.
The film opens with Mazair Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) returning to his home county to cover the Iranian elections for Newsweek. Incumbent President Mahmoud Amhadinejadis is facing the populist candidate Mir-Houssein Mousavi. There is an electricity in the streets for Mousavi, backed by the poor and uneducated Iranians who are crying out for change. Bahari interviews supporters for both men, but finds himself in the company of Mousavi supporters, who secretly install satellite dishes and provide VPN networks for Iranians who want information not controlled by the state.
During his coverage, he speaks with American comedian Jason Jones, who refers to himself as a spy for the Americans. It is a very small, very brief part of his coverage. His more important work is videotaping the violence that breaks out after Amhadinejad is reelected in a suspicious landslide. A few days after this footage is uploaded, Bahari is arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated for 118 days. The crux of the evidence against him is a snippet from “The Daily Show” where he is shown talking to a “spy.”
Most of the film is engaging and powerful. Bahari’s experiences are harrowing and tense. But even more fascinating is the look at the bureaucracy behind his imprisonment, the banality, and the forces at work. We get flashes of government frustration and ennui, even from the interrogator, who smells of rosewater. He appears as an overworked peon, hoping to get through his day and go home to his family.
Had the film focused solely on these themes, allowing the characters to tell the story entirely, it would have been exceptional. Stewart, however, makes the odd choice of beginning and ending with voiceover, with having flashes of the past appearing on shop windows in London, and having Twitter hashtags appear in block letters over the skies of Iran. At times, it feels like watching a car insurance commercial. These shifts in verisimilitude detract from the very strong human story he’s telling. There is a better way to express these ideas—hopefully, these are just the growing pains of a new and competent director.
Iran has been a considerable source of Hollywood inspiration in the past few years. In 2013, “Argo” won several Oscars for depicting a nerve-wracking drama about the Canadian Caper during the Iranian Revolution. The year before, “A Separation” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film by telling a story of a dissolving marriage in a complex and rigid society.
“Rosewater” may not be in contention for an Academy Award, but the film continues the tradition of informing viewers and exploring a country many Americans fear and despise. Each of these films presents a distinct picture of a region that sits perpetually on the edge of significant, dynamic change.
Whatever oppression exists there will not remain eternally. “Rosewater” may the weakest of these films—but not because the story is less compelling. It suffers only because it is tonally inconsistent. The film overcomes these quibbles in the end and tells an exceptional and personal story about hope in the face of oppression. It is a film that is certainly worth a look.