As a first time feature director, television personality and comedian Jon Stewart still has a bit to learn. As a writer, however, he has constructed a taut and thoughtful drama based on the true story of imprisoned British journalist Maziar Bahari with Rosewater. Stewart proves to be a master of material, while not exactly showcasing a perfect understanding of form. Still, there’s potential to be shown here, and the real life immediacy of the material comes through in the script and performances.
Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) was imprisoned in Iran in 2009 for daring to call the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a fraud, his Iranian father’s ties to the Communist party, and for leaking footage of violent out of control protests to the Western media. The film chronicles in great detail the 100 days Bahari spent in solitary confinement, only to be let out to talk to a specialist every day (Kim Bodnia) who’s goal was to psychologically torturing him into admitting to being part of a non-existent coup.
Bernal is understated and dignified even when being placed under extreme physical and mental distress. Bahari comes across as strong, calculating, unwavering, and most importantly, great at his job. He’s matched nicely by Bodnia’s menace. Despite the film’s struggles to properly frame the Iranian electoral process as a shitshow, the film settles in nicely when the actors are naturalistically allowed to interact with each other and their surroundings, with Bernal injecting a lot of humanity to a character that could have been conceived of as a cold and analytical fact finder. Stewart (who collaborated closely with the real life Bahari for the film) and Bernal get to the heart of the character to make his time in prison into something with an emotional payoff, and it carries the film exceptionally well through some of the novice filmmaking mistakes being made along the way.
The discussions that take place between characters throughout Rosewater feel informed without being forced, and that’s somewhat at odds with Stewart’s desire to dump as much factual accuracy on the material as possible. It’s a case where being faithful and maintaining journalistic integrity are at odds with Stewart’s filmmaking ambitions. He wants the grandiose and sometimes manipulative emotional beats of big time Hollywood filmmaking, but he also wants to stay very close to the details of the situation, which often means having to explain things in sometimes lugubrious and languorous detail. It’s a tragic miscarriage of justice, but Stewart’s hand is somewhat uneasy. Much like many first time directors he’s never sure if what he’s doing is too much or not enough.
Things get the most off track when Stewart decides to use inappropriately cutsey visuals to illustrate Bahari’s global influence. I’m sure he thought they looked cool, but they definitely aren’t needed. He’s overcompensating, but considering it’s coming from someone who primarily works on news magazines where such tricks are de rigueur, it all makes sense. Still, there’s a lot of worth here, and Stewart establishes himself as a great storyteller on paper. He just needs some practice to get the rest of his craft up as a filmmaker.