After you’ve seen Rosewater, come back and listen to Slate’s Dana Stevens and Bloomberg Politics reporter Dave Weigel discuss the movie in our Spoiler Special.
In some pristine utopia of critical evenhandedness, I suppose it would be possible to write about Rosewater without first writing about Jon Stewart. But we live in the grubby, unjust real world, where the first-time writer/director of this heartfelt political drama happens to have spent the last 15 years creating a four-times-a-week comedy show that pokes fun at the day’s most egregious examples of grubbiness and injustice. Assessing Stewart’s cinematic output constitutes a kind of conflict of interest for America as a nation, loving him as we do—or maybe I should just speak for myself.
I have a framed photo of Jon Stewart in my office, a thumbnail portrait of his face caught mid–George W. Bush impersonation and reproduced 40 times in a grid pattern. It was a 40th birthday gift from the person with whom I spent both Bush II terms watching The Daily Show as if for dear life. Stewart’s expert skewering of the administration’s quotidian idiocies and gaslighting self-justifications was like our nightly missive from the far-distant land of political and moral sanity. I am sure I’m not the only American who feels certain she might have a long arrest record for screaming publicly at newspaper headlines if not for the release provided by that show’s regular dose of humanist irony. Whether because of the end of the Bush years or the arrival of my daughter (both blessed events greeted by joyous weeping), I no longer watch The Daily Show every night. But whenever I do catch it, it’s a reminder that Stewart and his ninja-level writing team are still out there fighting the good fight against political ridiculousness in all its forms.
Even if I could forget my own history with Stewart, it’s not as if the director himself can keep his TV work separate from his filmmaking debut. Stewart’s screenplay tells a true story—based on a 2011 memoir by the Iranian-born, London-based journalist Maziar Bahari—that is intricately linked with The Daily Show. In 2009, when he was sent to Tehran by Newsweek to cover the election whose contested results would lead to the Green Revolution uprising, Bahari was the subject of a satirical interview by Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones (who appears briefly as himself in Rosewater to re-enact the encounter). Later, after Bahari was imprisoned for posting footage of state violence shot during a street demonstration, the tape of the Jason Jones interview was adduced as further evidence that Bahari must be a CIA spy (proof, if more were needed, that satire is lost on authoritarian theocrats). While Bahari languished in jail for 118 days, Stewart covered his ongoing ordeal on a nightly basis, and when he was finally let out on bail and later wrote a book about his experience, Bahari returned to The Daily Show as a guest. Inspired and fascinated by Bahari’s story, Stewart eventually decided to take three months off from his show to direct a film about it.
That early moment when Jason Jones pops up in a keffiyeh with a camera crew, bursting the fourth wall of two different narrative worlds at once, is the scene in which the viewer most feels the strain of Rosewater being a film by Jon Stewart. In fact, for the first half-hour or more—a blend of flashbacks, flashforwards, documentary footage of the demonstrations, plus one unfortunate visual gimmick involving the superimposition of revolutionary Twitter hashtags onto aerial views of the surging crowds—there’s a sinking sense that this whole thing isn’t going to fly, that Stewart’s celebrity (and the novelty of his having made a movie in the first place) is doomed to overshadow any attempt to tell the genuinely harrowing story of this innocent journalist’s prison ordeal.
But after Bahari (played with low-key intelligence and sensitivity by Gael García Bernal) is thrown into solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison, the movie shuts out the outside world almost entirely to focus on the relationship between the terrified journalist and his chief tormentor. It’s when this attempt at a grander-scale historical account settles down to being an intimate two-man prison drama that things get interesting.
In a quietly frightening performance, the Danish actor Kim Bodnia plays a prison interrogator identified only as “the specialist,” whom Bahari came to think of as “Rosewater” after the floral scent he always wore. Over the three-plus months that Bahari spends in solitary, he and Rosewater settle into a Scheherazade-style dynamic, with Bahari’s nonconfessions gradually evolving into elaborate yarns spun for the sole purpose of deferring his captor’s rage. During these daily interrogations, which can involve blindfolds, beatings, and the threat of imminent execution, the journalist’s stout insistence that he has no information to give begins to collapse under the weight of his increasing weariness and fear. He has a pregnant wife (Claire Foy) awaiting his return to London and a widowed mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) going crazy with worry in Tehran—might it be in his interest to sign the ridiculous confession and get home?
But Bahari is haunted, sometimes visibly to us, by the ghosts of his late father and sister, both former political prisoners.* In scenes that should feel hokey but somehow don’t, Bahari’s elegant, suit and tie–clad communist father (Haluk Bilginer) sometimes appears in his barren cell to share wisdom about what it takes to survive in conditions of isolation and torture. In the scenes between father and son, as in those between captor and prisoner, Stewart’s slyly written script avoids the stiffness of so many political dramas in which the characters function mainly as ideas (the kind of movie Rosewater threatens in its first 30 minutes to become). What develops between Bahari and Rosewater is specific to these two flawed, scared men, each convinced that his point of view is the just one and that sooner or later his interlocutor will have to break. Their perversely close connection—the dramatic heart of the film—is not only psychologically gripping but often hilarious (especially in a late scene in which Bahari discovers and exploits one of his captor’s chief weaknesses).
Rosewater’s cast is global almost to a fault, with Iranian characters played not only by the Mexican García Bernal but by a Dane (Bodnia), a Turk (Bilginer), and a Brit of Greek/Welsh ancestry (Dimitri Leonidas as Davood, Bahari’s loyal driver and tour guide through revolutionary Tehran). In fact, of García Bernal’s co-stars with significant roles, only one, Shohreh Aghdashloo, is Iranian, so Stewart sticks with the old-Hollywood convention of making vaguely accented English the cast’s lingua franca. Especially given the wealth of acting and filmmaking talent on offer in Iran (what about Peyman Moaadi, the extraordinary star of the Oscar-winning A Separation?), this resolute internationalism is a strange choice. But García Bernal is excellent as the mild-mannered journalist forced to plumb new depths of courage, and it’s possible that his handsome and famous face was necessary to get this already less-than-commercial project off the ground.
At one point, as part of Bahari’s strategy for staying sane through months of isolation, he dances alone in his cell, goofily but passionately, to a Leonard Cohen song remembered from his childhood. This moment introduces a note of lyricism, a celebration of the simple joy of being alive even under the worst conditions, that makes you understand what it was that drew Stewart to this as his first directorial project—and not, I hope, his last. Though at times Rosewater is clearly the work of a first-timer still finding his voice, Stewart is indisputably a real filmmaker.
Correction, Nov. 17, 2014: This article originally misstated that Maziar Bahari’s father had been imprisoned by the religious regime in Iran. Bahari’s father was a prisoner of the Shah’s regime. (Return.)