starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Haluk Bilginer, Shoreh Aghdashloo
screenplay by Jon Stewart, based on the book Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari
directed by Jon Stewart
by Walter Chaw Jon Stewart's hyphenate debut Rosewater, based on briefly-imprisoned Iranian-born Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari's memoir Then They Came For Me, is painfully earnest, suffering from the first-timer disease of being both unimaginatively-shot and laboriously About Something. It's a message movie, and there's no crime in that, but it's laid out so carefully that any sense of tension--or drama, really--is sapped out of it, simplifying its message to the point of inconsequence and, eventually, making the picture vulnerable to mockery. Rosewater is one of those movies that makes you cringe because although you believe in its politics, it isn't helping the cause. Consider the moment where one of Bahari's jailers cracks wise about Abu Ghraib because America, see, is just as bad as Iran, maybe in many ways: I was distracted by the moist sound of 1,200 eyes rolling at the same time. It also doesn't help that this issue film casts Mexican actor Gael García Bernal as Iranian-Canadian Bahari. This "best actor for the role" nonsense has to have a limit, lest Daniel Day-Lewis one day play Martin Luther King; this Christmas, Leonardo DiCaprio is Buddha. Chill out, we're post-racial, brah! Rosewater is the kind of shit that gives liberals a bad name, and for as much as I like and often admire "The Daily Show", it's very much the movie the host of "The Daily Show" would make.
Bahari, working for NEWSWEEK, films the immediate prelude to and aftermath of the election that Ahmadinejad stole in Iran and is imprisoned for his troubles, leaving his noble mother (Shoreh Aghdashloo, the Dick Miller of movies like this) and pregnant wife (Claire Foy) to lobby people like Hillary Clinton to secure his freedom. Meanwhile, Bahari is tortured, sort of, with terrible food and solitary confinement by those crazy Iranians who mistake Bahari's box set of "The Sopranos" for pornography. Surely none of those idiot American fundamentalist whackos would think the same thing! But they would, see--we're as much a theocracy as they are, and here we see the danger of Tea Party-type wackadoos controlling an entire country instead of, like, a sizeable portion of it. Get it? Rosewater misses no opportunity to ensure that you get it. Then it turns the tables, ha-HO, on a sadistic interrogator (Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian) in having Bahari gain his tormentor's trust and attention by spinning sordid tales of prostitutes and Jersey massage parlours. Stewart, lamentably, plays it for laughs.
Also lamentably, Stewart employs that old saw of prisoners speaking to physical manifestations of loved ones, The Messenger-style, except The Messenger was kinda good. He flashes back to a nobly-imprisoned sister who implores young Bahari to "see the best things! Listen to the best things! For ME, Maziar! For ME!", ignoring that her gifts of what is essentially contraband are essentially used as evidence against Bahari when the shit hits the fan. Too, Stewart superimposes a bunch of hashtag Twitter graphics to illustrate the proliferation of social media in the new age of activism; has projections speak to Bahari from storefront windows; and asks Bernal to deliver one of his patented adorable performances as the world's littlest ideological martyr. Rosewater is frustrating--a cunning simulation of a conversation with a well-intentioned college freshman who just finished his first Thomas Friedman collection. It's the victim of Stewart's guilelessness and Bahari's involvement, taking something that has more than two sides and sanding it down to a Leonard Cohen-scored dance of joy in an Iranian prison cell. It's a clockwork nightingale crying "truth." and to paraphrase Kubrick's comments on Schindler's List, Rosewater is about a guy disappeared who gets a second act in his life--the real story is about the thousands who don't.