Evaluating Rosewater on its own merits is something of a challenge, since it carries with it the collected renown of 15 years of The Daily Show. As Jon Stewart’s first foray into directing and screenwriting (we should all collectively agree to forget his acting career), Rosewater represents an industry leap that could be as monumental as Clint Eastwood’s, if it sticks. So far, Stewart has announced no plans to retire from his weeknight gig, aside from the three-month stint he took to film this picture (with John Oliver covering for him) so this may be the most we see of Stewart’s directorial career for a while. It’s a fascinating freshman effort, but not a whole lot more than that—an interesting story told with humor and charm, but also a little too much of the “based on a true story” slush that poisons the Hollywood well.
Director: Jon Stewart
Producers: Gigi Pritzger, Scott Rudin, Jon Stewart
Writers: Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari (memoir), Aimee Molloy (memoir)
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Howard Shore
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farhani, Claire Foy, Jason Jones
US Theatrical Release: November 14, 2014
US Distributor: Open Road Films
The true story actually begins with The Daily Show, specifically a segment from 2009 in which a “Senior Espionage Correspondent” (Jason Jones) interviewed Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari. The gag centered around this phony American spy asking Bahari how to infiltrate Iran. Unfortunately for Bahari, the Iranian government doesn’t have the same sense of humor as a wide swath of the American public—when they arrested him, authorities pointed to this interview as evidence that Bahari was cooperating with American spies. After four months in prison, Bahari’s pregnant British wife was able to muster enough international outrage to get Bahari freed and allow him to write the memoir on which this film is based.
The film opens, enigmatically, with Bahari’s arrest. Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal, we’ll get back to that later) is rudely awoken by an Iranian brute squad who proceed to dig through the belongings he has stored at his mother’s house. Even in these early moments, some of Jon Stewart’s witty charm sneaks into the script. What would normally be somber and terrifying becomes wryly pessimistic as the Iranian police deem everything from The Sopranos to Pasolini’s Teorema to Esquire Magazine to be “porno” and Leonard Cohen to be “jewish.”
But what starts out in such an intimate and strong setting soon devolves into vague intimations about Iran’s Green Revolution. While this is a beautiful and important moment, the film lacks the depth to really discuss what that means. It doesn’t have the time or focus to actually delve into any historical or political analysis of the Iranian government and so the political implications of the film’s first act fall a little flat. Like those extended interviews available on The Daily Show’s website, this kind of additional background would make this film much more powerful and important—without it, it feels crass and incomplete.
Still, Rosewater really hits its stride once Bahari is penned up in his prison cell, meeting with his interrogation “specialist,” a brutal man who wears cologne that smells like rosewater. We see the cell and parts of his interrogation, sprinkled with hallucinated visions of his father and sister who come to offer advice. Stewart’s script turns this dreary torture into something surprisingly delightful. The interspersed visits from family and the brutal ignorance of his specialist combine to make Bahari’s gradual spin into solitary confinement-induced insanity come across as delirious and almost exciting. When he slowly begins to acquiesce to the interrogator, admitting that perhaps he was unwittingly working for the American media spying apparatus, he is giving in with a knowing smirk—controlling his jailers more than they control him.
Gabriel García Bernal portrays Bahari as an intelligent, nuanced, and at times silly journalist—a full, well-rounded figure with a passable British-Iranian accent. (Jon Stewart opted for that tired Hollywood route of shooting a movie set in the Middle East entirely in lightly accented English.) But the question remains, why is García Bernal cast in this role? He certainly has the talent to carry it, but the interchangeable casting of actors from the global south seems to imply an assumption that anyone with brownish skin will look close enough to Iranian to pass. This is reminiscent of many other films, perhaps most recently Frieda Pinto in Julian Schnabel’s Miral, in that instance an Indian actress portraying a Palestinian character.
While it’s certainly better than the old standard, casting a white actor in the role, it still feels like those moments in cinematic history that will be off-puttingly backward in a decade or two—something like Charlton Heston’s regrettable brown-face as a Mexican character in Touch of Evil. Were there no Iranian actors Jon Stewart could have cast for this role? Certainly there are sociopolitical complications to consider—Iranian actors might have a hard time finding work in Iran after appearing in this film, which the Iranian government has decried as funded by Zionists and the CIA—but the choice still feels regrettably in poor taste.
However, the problem with the central conceit of this film comes at its end, with Bahari’s eventual release. While it may indeed be true, based on the real journalist’s experience, it is such a Disney-fied happy ending that it gives the whole enterprise a saccharine aftertaste. The film seems to be saying that his release is a success, an overthrow of the existing power structure, when in reality it is just another example of privilege. Once every prisoner in every jail has a charismatic, white spouse to organize his or her release from abroad, we won’t have to worry. Until then, the stories of those thousands of prisoners who aren’t released feel like more important stories to tell, and while Rosewater hints at their plight, the feel-good ending makes it seem like everything will be alright as long as Bahari gets to be with his wife and child. Before leaving his cell, he finds time to scrawl an optimistic message on one cell wall, imploring the cell’s future inhabitant not to give up hope, yet such optimism comes easier after being released. For those less fortunate prisoners, hope is a more treasured commodity.