In the summer of 2013, Jon Stewart took a hiatus from The Daily Show and traveled to Jordan for a month to film a movie. That Stewart decided to get back into films in the first place wasn’t terribly surprising, particularly when you consider the true-story subject matter he was looking to tackle: a journalist arrested and interrogated in Iran after giving an interview on The Daily Show about the country’s election. That journalist, Maziar Bahari, later wrote a book about his experience and approached Stewart to see if he’d be interesting in adapting a film. The result, Rosewater, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and is being shown this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a well-intentioned but rather clumsy attempt at a film about Western ideals and Middle Eastern oppression.
Gael Garcia Bernal stars here as Bahari, the aforementioned Iranian Canadian journalist for Newsweek who ends up in an Iranian prison a day after filming and releasing a video depicting the 2009 Iranian election protests, where citizens marched on the streets of Tehran to object Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election. When Bahari gets to jail, his interrogator points to the video along with a recent interview Bahari did on The Daily Show, where he joked with correspondent Jason Jones about being a spy.
Stewart handles the Daily Show mention well, having Jones himself reshoot the segment with Bernal as Bahari. He even gives the audience a faux behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Q+A, which makes for a fun Easter egg for fans of the program. Of course, in the film, Bahari’s interrogator is unable to grasp the show’s satiric nature (either that or he’s being naïve on purpose as a means to break Bahari), and thus he ends up spending the next several months in solitary confinement.
Overall, there are some smart ideas in this film, but many of them feel misused. Mostly, the tone seems off. At times, Stewart takes on the material as satire, looking to point out the absurdity of Iranian laws and their leaders’ despicable paranoia when it comes to democracy.
Stewart hinted at the balance between the serious and comedic approach the day before at an event at TIFF, stating “Satire helps idiots like me cope. When your country invades another country for no reason, we make jokes to deal with the shame. This film was just another way to be serious.” Those less serious moments include interrogators asking Bahari whether The Sopranos or Empire Magazine are pornographic, having a discussion with Bahari about sexual massages, and telling Bahari to “Dial 9 to get an outside line” when he’s finally allowed to speak with his wife. These scenes bring out a strange lightheartedness you would not expect going into a film with such a heady synopsis. It makes you think how interesting the film might have been if Stewart decided to go all-in on these moments and turn the film into a full-fledged satire.
The film’s strength, however, is in its more serious moments. The scenes where Bahari is emotionally and physically tortured highlight the ultimate sacrifice people like him have been forced to make. Bernal handles these scenes with the same power we’ve seen in previous roles. However, some of the interrogation moments lack the emotional density Stewart is looking to achieve, particularly if you hold it up to films that deal with similar subject matter or include comparable scenes (Zero Dark Thirty, Syriana).
They look even worse when you hold them up to the film’s cheesier scenes. One montage in particular that looks to highlight the social nature of the 2011 Iranian elections does so by zooming out from Tehran and plastering Twitter hashtags all over the city’s rooftops. The sequence feels like a social media informational video instead of a forward-thinking approach to depicting digital communication. Stewart tries it again during a scene where Bahari’s family members get plastered on sides of buildings while he’s walking down the street, with similar results.
Yet despite its overall unevenness, as a first-time director, Stewart should be proud of giving this story more coverage. You can feel him reaching for something stronger here, attempting to highlight a horrific problem in a difficult part of the world. As the film states at the end, Bahari was just one of many journalists and innocent civilians being held against their will overseas. While Rosewater might not accomplish everything it needs to do on-screen, it will at least put a spotlight on the currently oppressed individuals in Iran and around the world.