Rosewater is emotionally sincere and thoughtful, but Jon Stewart's movie also very much feels like a first-time director's work.
Rosewater begins in June 2009, as Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) travels to Iran in order to cover the country's presidential election for Newsweek. There, Maziar is befriended by Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), a young man who provides him transportation and helps Maziar as he interviews the supporters for both incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi - the latter of whom Davood and his close pals openly rally behind.
However, after Maziar participates in a mock interview for The Daily Show, and then captures incriminating footage of Iranian police violence against protesters (who claim fraud when Ahmadinejad is re-elected despite strong odds), he is targeted by the country's government, arrested, and placed into solitary confinement. There, he is interrogated and brutalized by an anonymous man (Kim Bodnia) - whom Maziar identifies as "Rosewater" by the scent he wears - who accuses his prisoner of being a spy and demands that Maziar publicly confess his "crimes."
Written for the screen and directed by Jon Stewart (making his feature-length debut as director), Rosewater is based on actual events - documented in the memoir "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival" by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy - that Stewart's Daily Show played a key role in, as shown in the film. Stewart's personal connection to Maziar's experience no doubt helped to shape his approach with the big screen adaptation, which strikes a very earnest tone in its presentation and unfolds as a fairly even-handed, yet nonetheless politically-charged docudrama.
Rosewater, as a film, is a solid directorial debut for Stewart, but his lack of experience behind the camera is also fairly evident. Stewart the filmmaker shows a clear interest in using the vocabulary of cinema to tell Maziar's story, utilizing such techniques as time-condensing montage (during the interrogation scenes) and expressionist lighting (the light in Maziar's cell symbolizes his sense of hope), among others, to not just show the journalist's experience, but also help filmgoers better understand how it felt. Problem is, these techniques are combined in a somewhat unorganized way; it feels more like the work of a director trying different things to see what works best, and not so much the work of a filmmaker with a clear vision.
Stewart the screenwriter does a commendable job of creating a sturdy three-act structure for Rosewater; certain storytelling choices even help to heighten the tension of Maziar's plight (see how the film opens with his arrest before flashing back). There's also a surprising amount of organic humor to the story, as Stewart is able to bring out the comedy in the narrative (playing off Iranian officials' obliviousness to pop culture and western civilization), but without turning the proceedings into a Dr. Strangelove-esque dark comedy or farce at the same time. At the same time, though, Rosewater's storyline never really feels as alive and vibrant as it's clearly meant to.
Probably the best explanation for why Rosewater never fully takes off is that too often the film tells us that Maziar is relying on his inner strength to remain sane - through conversations that he imagines having with his late father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani) while in isolation - as opposed to showing us through his actions and/or interactions with "Rosewater" (save for one memorable conversation), which make up about two-thirds of the film. As mentioned before, it's the sort of mistake common for a first-time writer/director.
Gael Garcia Bernal does fine work in the role of Maziar Bahari, helping to ground the film's portrayal of him so that he's closer to being a real human being (with emotional faults and strengths alike) and not just a brave figure worth admiring. However, it's Kim Bodnia as "Rosewater" who leaves the stronger impression; the mysterious man's conviction and inexperience with western pop culture (be it Facebook or The Sopranos) work when played for comedy because Bodnia handles those moments as sincerely as the beats where "Rosewater" is a po-faced soldier threatening Maziar's life.
Supporting cast members such as the aforementioned Haluk Bilginer and Golshifteh Farahani, along with Shohreh Aghdashloo (as Maziar's mother) and Claire Foy (as Maziar's pregnant wife), help to further emotionally ground the proceedings in Rosewater. These side characters tend to serve as plot devices in the film more than anything, but at the same time the actors in these roles deliver strong performances that help make up the difference. Admittedly, there are times where the fact that a number of the movie's costars are from the Middle-east - and Bernal is not - makes Stewart's casting choice for Maziar seem a bit awkward, but it's really not a huge issue on the whole.
Rosewater is emotionally sincere and thoughtful, but Jon Stewart's movie also very much feels like a first-time director's work. The film's earnestness and willingness to flesh out characters on both sides of the political divide are admirable, and help it to avoid coming off as either Oscar bait or cheap political theater (though some will no doubt feel differently about that) - but it still ends up feeling a bit too dry. It's not quite must-see material, but Rosewater nonetheless suggests that The Daily Show's current host may well have a promising filmmaking career ahead of him.
Rosewater is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 103 minutes long and is Rated R for language including some crude references, and violent content.
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