Film Review: Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” — A Film of Skill and Passion
Rosewater is a movie for the idealists, with the implied hope that a principled and conscientious mass media can give the new breed of technologically savvy activists a louder voice.
Rosewater, written and directed by Jon Stewart. Showing on screens around New England.
By Betsy Sherman
As a never-miss-it Daily Show viewer, I had a front row seat. It was the spring of 2009, and the show’s producers were so moved by Iran’s grassroots Green Movement that they sent one of their fake-news correspondents, for real, to Tehran to cover the presidential election. Jason Jones adopted a Daniel Craig swagger for a series called Jason Jones: Behind the Veil: Minarets of Menace. As part of his report he sat down for a mock-belligerent interview with Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari. The real journalist handled the exchange with aplomb; in it, he told self-described spy Jones that Americans and average Iranians actually have a lot in common.
Then, not long after the controversial declaration of a landslide victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi (supported by the green-adorned demonstrators), Daily Show viewers were told the alarming news that Bahari had been jailed. Months later, upon the reporter’s release, Bahari said that while TDS’s bit wasn’t the sole reason he was arrested, it definitely didn’t help. On a book tour for his memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity and Survival (co-written with Aimee Molloy), Bahari sat across the desk from Stewart as the latter announced they would adapt the book into a feature film.
Here it is at last, the fruit of this collaboration. Rosewater, scripted and directed by Stewart, is a work of skill as well as passion. With a charismatic lead performance by Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari, the film is immediate and vital even as it changes tempo according to the events depicted. Through the experiences and thoughts of the protagonist, Rosewater tells the story of an intellectually and politically engaged family and of a people whose strength and traditions transcend the dictates of whoever their rulers might be. Above all (much like another film starring Bernal, No), this is one for the idealists, with the implied hope that a principled and conscientious mass media can give the new breed of technologically savvy activists a louder voice.
The drama opens with the arrest. Maziar’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) rouses the globe-trotting reporter from his sleep in a boyhood bedroom filled with multi-national pop culture. Sour-faced men push past her and berate her for not wearing a head-covering. They rifle through Maziar’s DVDs (for example, The Sopranos) and music collection and with a query that’s really a pronouncement, ask, “Pornography?” Following this brief farce–one of the movie’s earliest examples of dark comic relief, which will reach an apotheosis in a dialogue about massage parlors in New Jersey—Maziar is shoved into a car and whisked away, leaving behind a mother who has experienced not only her late husband’s imprisonment as a Communist by the Shah but also her late daughter’s imprisonment (same charge) by Ayatollah Khomeini’s post-revolution theocracy.
The next briskly paced passage details the eleven days preceding the arrest. Viewers are further filled in on the backstory of the Bahari family and receive a quick lesson on the power structure in Iran (Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not the president, holds the reins). Maziar bids his pregnant wife goodbye in London and travels to his native land. Yes, he’s building a family in the West, but he’s still heavily invested in the struggles going on there. It’s with a mixture of hope and skepticism that he makes contact with young dissidents for whom satellite dishes and social media are lifelines (he also speaks with youth who support the status quo). Footage shot during the 2009 events is cut into the story. Oh yeah, and during one dense day of reportage, Maziar keeps his appointment with the Daily Show crew. He has to make an effort not to crack up at Jones’ posturing.
The free-flowing adrenalin must needs abate once the setting is the prison in which Bahari spent 118 days, 107 of them in solitary confinement. The constrained, blindfolded reporter is deprived of stimuli, as is, to some degree, the audience (the musical score by Howard Shore is effectively tense without being heavy-handed). In hallucinatory sequences, Maziar’s father (Haluk Bilginer) appears in the cell. Impatient with his son’s softness, he tells Maziar not to underestimate these oppressors—yet also brands them as paper tigers. It’s a seeming contradiction; however, the duality is embodied in the “specialist” assigned to break the alleged spy. Played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia, the man who is suddenly the most important person in the reporter’s world can be cunning and menacing, yet at times seems in over his head. He tells Maziar “My bosses are not happy with you,” really meaning “My bosses are not happy with me.” The torturer-as-functionary isn’t that fresh a concept—it makes me picture a character in a 1960s Eastern European cartoon—but it seems quite plausible in this case and gives Maziar the chance to use wit as a weapon.
The courage shown by Bahari’s father notwithstanding, both the journalist and Stewart especially cherish the influence and sacrifice of Maziar’s sister (Golshifteh Farahani). Maryam urged her brother to discover the wider world through art. In flashback, 10-year-old Maziar visits her in prison. “You must see all the films you can see, listen to beautiful music—do that for me,” she says. The plea is heartbreaking, but its payoff is joyous. In solitary, Maziar has a one-man dance party to a Leonard Cohen song that he and we, but not the jailers, can hear. With this, Rosewater’s version of “don’t let the bastards get you down” reaches a brazenly goofy height.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.