By Zaki Hasan
For his feature directing debut, Rosewater, longtime Daily Show host and “most trusted newsman in America” Jon Stewart made the somewhat counter-intuitive decision to sidestep the comedy genre entirely. Instead, he chose to tell the true-life story of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, who spent 118 days in an Iranian prison following that country’s tumultuous 2009 elections, which saw accusations of Florida 2000-esque shenanigans following the electoral victory of Mahmoud Ahmedinajad (with the Ayatollah essentially filling the king-maker role the Supreme Court played here).
Featuring a script by Stewart himself (adapted from Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival) Rosewater plays the election and its aftermath as backdrop to the story of Bahari’s harrowing prison stay, which was tangentially connected to a Daily Show appearance he made opposite “correspondent” Jason Jones, who identified himself as an American spy during the course of a comedy segment that segment was then, in true kangaroo court fashion, used as evidence against Bahari (played in the film by Gael Garcia Bernal).
It’s a situation that’s at once surreal and terrifying, and it’d be hard for anyone not to relate, which is something Stewart manages to ply for maximum audience investment. Indeed, the central thrust of the story, Bahari’s struggle to maintain his sanity while the prison walls figuratively close in on him, is enough of a hook that we can forgive some narrative digressions during the course of its runtime that feel more indulgent than they do profound, adding a degree of bloat that this 145 minute film really didn’t need.
That said, Bernal is relatable and sympathetic, and he’s backed by a solid troupe of supporting players (including Oscar nominee Shohreh Agdashloo as Bahari’s mother, and Kim Bodnia as his primary tormentor). Also, major points to Stewart for going far wider and deeper into Iranian culture than many Western filmmakers (Argo notwithstanding) have shown willingness to do. Stewart goes to great lengths to show us the vibrance of daily life and the many opinions and points-of-view that make up the country. This is especially welcome given how stateside media often paints the entire population as a monolithic appendage of its government.
What’s amply clear from watching Rosewater is just how passionate Jon Stewart was to give us his take on this particular story, and that’s pretty hard not to respect. He has a compelling protagonist in Bahari, a compelling leading man in Bernal, and a preternatural ease as a storyteller that belies his relative inexperience behind the camera. While he may have abandoned his on-screen acting career with 2002’s Death to Smoochy (basically, the same time as the rest of us), Stewart has made a confident entree onto the directing scene that demands to be noticed. B+
Zaki Hasan is a professor of communication and media studies and co-founder of Mr. Boy Productions, an LA-based independent film and video company. A lifelong pop culture buff, Zaki has been a media scholar and critic for more than fifteen years. His work has been featured in Q-News, Illume, and The Huffington Post. In addition, he has appeared as a panelist on Al Jazeera America’s The Stream. Since 2004, his blog Zaki’s Corner has been his one-stop forum for musings on news, media, politics, and pop culture.