How does one go about making a film about torture that isn’t so tough to watch? You have it be the directorial debut by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, that’s how. Rosewater is based on the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari, who actually appeared on Stewart’s show as a guest in a goof segment; only to have that appearance used against him as evidence he was an American spy. It’s almost too ridiculous, the satirical elements peeking through in a story that demands we take it seriously, but that’s also probably the reason why Stewart chose this as first feature.
On a nightly basis, The Daily Show is an exercise in helping the bad medicine go down smoothly. Using humor to deliver ugly news about our screwed up political system is what Stewart does best, and we love him for it. He tries to do the same with Rosewater, but with very mixed results. Based on Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me”, the film largely centers on the 100+ days he spent in captivity at the hands of the Iranian government. A Canadian-Iranian journalist covering the controversial 2009 Iranian Presidential elections, Bahari was on hand when the disputed results led to violent rioting in the streets. Capturing acts of brutality against the protestors, Bahari was taken from his home, paraded in front of his worried mother (the great Shohreh Aghdashloo), and locked away in solitary confinement. The anguish on her face, the product of having seen her activist husband daughter taken never to be seen again, is probably the most gut-wrenching moment Stewart allows.
Stewart focuses on the absurdity of Bahari’s predicament rather than the darkness of it. Of course he’s not a spy, but the officials holding him captive need a confession as a means of discouraging the protestors. The problem is that they aren’t especially effective jailors, or at least the man nicknamed “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia) is depicted as a joke; someone who merely wishes to keep his job and appease his bosses. As far as depictions of torture go, Rosewater is probably the tamest ever, and it undercuts the implication that Bahari was put through such terrible physical and mental abuse. That’s not to say he doesn’t go through a lot; his pregnant wife is used against him on more than one occasion, playing on fears he’ll never see his newborn son grow up. Stewart injects jokes in odd places, some of which (like a random jab at New Jersey) sound like unused gags from a ‘Daily Show’ staff meeting. Other times the comedy serves to expose hidden details about both captor and captive. Bahari regaling “Rosewater” with phony stories of perusing erotic massage parlors is a funny highlight, although it only goes to show what a clown his keeper really is. It’s hard to escape the thought that Bahari didn’t go through all that much, at least not based on what’s depicted on screen. His book tells us otherwise, but clearly it was Stewart’s decision to leave out the darker stuff to keep this as audience-friendly as possible. A more stressful depiction would have helped balance the fact that we know Bahari’s story is ultimately a happy one.
It’s interesting to see the choices Stewart makes as a director, with some working out better than others. Visually he delivers a nifty representation of the growing uprising through a series of tweets and hashtags spreading across the city, and his use of archival footage of the protests is impactful. He lightly brushes against political oppression and media censorship, but doesn’t go too far into exploring either. Gael Garcia Bernal doesn’t make for the most obvious choice to play Bahari, but in moments it’s obvious why it was a good decision. Bernal is an actor who is very easy to believe in. With his big smile and charming disposition we can’t help but feel for him when things are at their worst, yet we also want to cheer when his hope is restored. The best performance may actually be from Bodnia, who shows the complexities in his middle manager-esque torturer beautifully in a short amount of time.
How far is Stewart planning to go in this new phase of his career? That much is unclear at this point, and a lot of it may have to do with how well the movie performs. Rosewater was an attempt to tell his friend’s story in a way that would appeal to The Daily Show’s casual audience, when it really needed was to show the hard and ugly truth.