“Rosewater” is a sober, respectful account of an Iranian journalist’s experiences covering that country’s controversial 2009 election, and his subsequent imprisonment on nonsensical espionage charges. It’s a serious reminder that freedom of the press is threatened in many corners of the world. And it’s a perfectly good but utterly unremarkable drama that wouldn’t garner much attention if it weren’t the directorial debut of “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.
It was in the course of his “Daily Show” duties that Stewart became aware of Maziar Bahari’s story, and he was ultimately moved to make it the subject of his first filmmaking effort. That sounds ambitious, especially for someone whose experience lies almost entirely in the field of comedy. But watching “Rosewater,” I realized it’s not an ambitious film at all, but an ordinary fact-based story about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity, the likes of which we see about a dozen times a year, especially in the fall.
Now, I don’t mean to diminish Bahari’s experiences, which I am confident would have broken me on Day 2. I only mean to say that in movie form (or at least in the form of this movie), his story falls into a familiar genre of stolid, reputable films that shine a light on the truth, are duly praised and gravely nodded at, and then forgotten. As history, it’s important. As a movie, not so much.
It benefits tremendously, however, from a soulful and passionate central performance by Gael Garcia Bernal. A Newsweek writer living in London with his pregnant wife, Maziar returns home to Tehran to cover the important election and to visit his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Their family has a long history of quarrels with the Iranian government, going back to the 1950s, when Maziar’s father was imprisoned for being a communist (which, to be fair, he was), and into the 1980s, when his older sister was killed.
When dictator incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announces he’s won the election by an absurd margin, there’s a massive outcry against the apparent fraud. Maziar documents the protests, the riots, and the government’s violent response with his video camera. At his side is Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), the young cab driver who picked him up at the airport and became his assistant. (It’s a little convenient, but hey, maybe that’s how it happened.) Davood is part of the rising tide of revolt against Ahmadinejad, and he takes Maziar to the neighborhoods where anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment is strongest.
To paraphrase the title of Maziar Bahari’s book, then they came for him. He’s rousted out of bed (in his childhood bedroom) a few days after the election, hustled off to prison, and immediately placed in solitary confinement. He’s accused of being a spy. A spy for whom? For “the CIA, MI-6, Newsweek” — whatever charge will stick, basically. As evidence, his captors cite a “Daily Show” interview he did in which Jason Jones (who appears here as himself) jokingly called him a spy. Does the Iranian government really not understand how “The Daily Show” works? Well, possibly. But the important thing is that it doesn’t matter. Ahmadinejad’s enforcers speak a number of bald-faced lies, unconcerned about being contradicted.
In solitary confinement, Maziar converses with his dead father (played by (Haluk Bilginer), who gives him advice and teases him about his imprisonment being so much easier than his old man’s was back in the day. (He isn’t wrong. As awful as solitary confinement is, Maziar is mostly spared the other forms of torture we might be bracing ourselves for.) There are hints that Maziar’s interrogator (Kim Bodnia) — known as Rosewater for the scent he wears — is disillusioned by his bosses’ corruption, but the idea isn’t taken anywhere and ends up feeling obligatory.
“Obligatory” is how a lot of it feels, actually. Stewart’s sincerity isn’t in question, and he acquits himself better than a lot of first-time directors do. But despite his good intentions, and despite Garcia Bernal’s earnest performance, Stewart (who also wrote the screenplay) can’t find a way to make the story connect on an emotional level.
B- (1 hr., 43 min.; )
Originally published at Complex.