'Rosewater': Film Review

Jon Stewart's debut feature is capable, but lacks urgency

An emotionally accessible but very modest tale of one man's temporary misfortune at the hands of the Iranian government

It's never the wrong time to protest tyranny, unjust imprisonment, torture and totalitarian tactics. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart's debut as a feature-film director is motivated above all to do just that and does it in a capable, straightforward manner. But while the issues of political oppression Rosewater deals with remain relevant in places all over the world, the jailing, rough interrogation and release after four months of a young journalist at the time of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections just doesn't seem that timely or urgent given the hailstorm of insidious outrages that have taken place in the Middle East since then. This Open Road release, which will open on Nov. 7 after debuting on the festival circuit, will get loads of attention based on the celebrity of its writer-director. But if this very same film had been made by an unknown director, it would pass in the night with only scant notice.

Stewart famously took time off last summer from his nightly TV hosting duties to go to Jordan to make this adaptation of a book by a man who had been a guest on his show both before and after his ordeal. Then They Came for Me was London-based Iranian Maziar Bahari's account of the misfortune that awaited him when, on assignment from Newsweek, he went to Tehran in June of 2009 to cover the hotly contested presidential election between the hardline conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a perceived moderate in whom great hope was invested.

Opening with scenes of Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) being questioned by investigators at the home of his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) about “porno” like The Sopranos in his video collection and subsequently being hauled off for incarceration, writer-director Stewart flips back 11 days to London, where Bahari's wife, Paola (Claire Foy), is newly pregnant and we learn that his late father and sister had both been imprisoned under the Ayatollah Khomeini for being communists. On the eve of the election, Bahari flies to Tehran, video camera in hand, to cover a contest that looks to most observers to be too close to call.

Chancing to find a young, hip driver (an engaging Dimitri Leonidas) willing to zip him around town on his motorcycle (Stewart intercuts shots of the actors on Jordanian streets with stolen video footage taken in the Iranian capital for a measure of verisimilitude), Bahari soon finds himself at “Dish University,” a hangout for liberal-minded young people where countless satellite dishes are hidden on the roof, giving them access to international media. In short order, the political stakes are laid out while the film hangs for a while with affable and well-educated 20-somethings to make the point that Iran has a new generation whose tastes and opinions are at one with students and young professionals throughout the West. Most of the film's dialogue is spoken in lightly accented English.

The lopsided election results in Ahmadinejad's favor on June 12 suggest a rigged vote and trigger the large-scale street protests known as the Green Movement. “Something special is happening here,” Bahari informs his wife while he takes some risks shooting videos of troops firing away at protestors. The observer has taken sides, becoming one of the committed.

At just past the half-hour point, the action dovetails with the opening scenes to show Bahari being thrown into solitary at the Evin prison. He's accused of being a spy for the CIA, the MI6 or whomever else you've got and is expected to confess as much to his eponymous interrogator (Kim Bodnia of The Bridge and Pusher). “Rosewater,” as he is felicitously nicknamed, can be intense, but he's not always the ferocious brute that such characters almost invariably are.  He can be a bit of a bumbler, is mostly unproductive in his questioning and becomes flummoxed at times, resulting in the occasional intervention of his boss. Week after week pass without the prisoner giving in at all and without real violence being committed.

Aside from being blindfolded during the interrogations and being served food topped with ants on one occasion, Bahari lives in conditions that are far from the worst you've ever seen in prison movies; the facility looks pretty new, it isn't squalid and there are even rugs on the floor (although no doubt for religious reasons). The deprivation and uncertainty over his fate are awful, to be sure, and as the weeks go by, Rosewater begins getting physical in unpleasant ways. Nor is Bahari allowed books or anything else to read. At a certain point, he's ignored entirely, effectively making the prisoner feel that he's been forgotten.

As the days of Bahari's incarceration are counted off onscreen, some of the exchanges are good; aware that Rosewater is fascinated by the mysteries of illicit sex, his captive deviously describes trips to exotic international ports of call where he says he's gotten “special” massages. But for a good hour, you're trapped in the prison with the two men, a situation that seriously restricts the drama's cinematic possibilities.

We know from the outset that the author survived to be freed and return to his wife in the West, so it's only a matter of how his release was achieved after 118 days. The way the story unfolds, there really isn't a message per se other than a general one about not giving up hope; the political and personal lessons here don't seem particularly profound or instructive. 

Stewart and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski cover it all in a straightforward, watchable way, the performances are all sincere and solid and the situation is easy to respond to emotionally. But as a case history in the annals of political repression, it feels like a bit of a sideshow.

Production: Open Road Films, OddLot Entertainment
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Halah Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dimitri Leonidas, Claire Foy, Nasser Faris, Miles Jupp
Director: Jon Stewart
Screenwriter: Jon Stewart, based on the book Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari
Producers: Scott Rudin, Jon Stewart, Gigi Pritzker
Executive producers: Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush, Chris McShane
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Phaedra William Dahdaleh
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Howard Shore

No rating, 104 minutes

Aug. 28, 8:51 a.m. An earlier version of this review incorrectly indicated that Bahari's father and sister had been imprisoned under the Shah. THR regrets the error.