There's much to be said about Jon Stewart's directorial debut Rosewater. Thankfully, most is good. Rosewater tells the true story of Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), an Iranian journalist imprisoned and interrogated in Iran for 4 months on suspicion of being an American spy.
Bahari's story is incredibly close to Stewart because the main evidence of Bahari being a spy came from a satirical interview he did for Stewart's The Daily Show. Before watching the film, I didn't know this and thought the inclusion of The Daily Show was a weird, self-gratifying move from Stewart, but knowing that it was used against Bahari makes it an important piece of the narrative.
Based on Bahari's book Then They Came For Me, the film follows the journalist as he leaves his pregnant English wife to cover the Iranian presidential election for Newsweek. We get a clear picture of Bahari torn between his two worlds "“ his wife and unborn child on one side and his family in Iran on the other. As Bahari arrives in Iran, we begin to learn more about his family. About how his father and his sister were both detained by the government for many years and that both eventually died in prison. About how his mother still lives there and keeps going even with the grief she's faced. As Bahari walks along a street in Tehran, short clips and images of his sister are projected on the storefronts behind him, providing a visually interesting way of conveying their relationship and her influence without utilizing too many flashbacks. Stewart continues to weave Bahari's father and sister in without using flashback throughout the rest of the film, primarily as hallucinations Bahari has while imprisoned.
I expected the interrogation scenes to be hard to watch, and certainly some of them were. What I didn't expect was the tongue-in-cheek humor scattered throughout. Stewart and Bahari really use their wit to illustrate just how silly the whole affair is. Bahari's interrogator, nicknamed Rosewater for his overpowering scent (and because Bahari is primarily blindfolded), is portrayed in a completely human way. He's not a menacing, purely evil figure but a man just following orders from his supervisors and a man that gets more and more frustrated by the imposing and rigid system he works for. Instead of instituting the more traditional black and white/good vs evil dynamic, the film instead seems to treat the Iranian government with pity. Rosewater makes clear that the government is living in the old world and ignoring the new one. In the old world, they could imprison people based on superfluous charges, and it might quiet people thinking about rebelling. But the new world is the land of citizen journalism, where everyone has a smart phone with a camera, and social media is available to everyone. Rosewater and Stewart argue that these democratizing tools are changing the world and outdated, old world thinking as exemplified by the Iranian government are powerless against it.
It's clear that the film isn't focused on portraying a 100% authentic Iran. Bahari is portrayed by Gael Garcia Bernal, a Mexican, and his interrogater is portrayed by the Danish Kim Bodnia. Still, they both give stellar performances, and Bodnia in particularly lends a real humanity to the interrogator Rosewater.
Overall, Rosewater is a compelling, emotional, and touching tribute to journalists imprisoned all over the world. It's sense of humor does not play down the ramifications of emotional and physical torture but in fact gives the audience and Bahari a sense of hope in a hopeless situation. It ends on an uplifting and optimistic note while still instilling that the fight is far from over. Between the performances from Bernal and Bodnia and the directing from Stewart, Rosewater truly hits it out of the park.