Rosewater, written and directed by Jon Stewart, starring Gael García Bernal, opens on 371 screens this weekend. Here is my original review from TIFF.
America’s Sweetheart, Jon Stewart, makes his directorial debut in Rosewater, which he also wrote, the story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was thrown in jail in Iran after appearing on The Daily Show while covering the corrupt 2009 Iranian elections. The comedi-Kafkaesque allegations hurled at Bahari by the Ahmadinejad regime involved the accusation that because Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones referred to himself as “a spy” in the Bahari segment, that Bahari had been “speaking to spies.” Which made Bahari, by default, himself an American spy. As Tehran descended into bloody protests, interrogators grilled Bahari about The Daily Show and the things he’d listed as “likes” on his Facebook page while holding him in solitary confinement for months on end.
The fact that the great Jon Stewart decided Bahari’s story was one that needed to be told, so much so that the heretofore-unknown-for-directing-movies comedian had to do it himself gives Rosewater a much stronger hook than your usual based-on-a-true-story awards ploy. If the biggest question every storyteller must implicitly answer is “Why are you telling me this story?” – and with true-story movies, I would add an emphasis: “why are you telling me this story?” – one of the strengths of Rosewater is that there’s a satisfying answer. Jon Stewart is telling us this story because he’s in a privileged position to do so. (You can watch Bahari’s Daily Show segment here). The resulting debut is equal parts impressive, and… well, kind of boring.
Bahari, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, looking like someone put a dress shirt on a jockey, has visions of his dead father during his prison stay. “I’d forgotten how boring prison is,” the father says. Ding ding ding! Rosewater does a lot of things well, but it’s hard to overcome the fact that its main setting is prison, and prison is pretty damned boring when it’s not filled with hot lesbians. In fact, there isn’t a single shower scene. Orange is the New Black would never work if Piper had been in solitary for her entire stay like Bahari was.
The movie is called Rosewater, a secret nickname Bahari gave his chief interrogator, based on the smell of the man’s cologne (I’d like to think it’s also the nickname Seal gave to his jacuzzi). Rather than focus on this character, putting a face to evil, say, a la The Lives of Others, Rosewater mostly deals instead with the much less interesting question of how Bahari survived his captivity. We get Obi-Wan-style appearances from dead relatives, pep talks, arguments, 127 Hours-style flashbacks, etc., all of which seem to be slightly-hokey attempts to distract from the reality that this “story of survival” consisted mostly of sitting in a shitty, boring cell and waiting. An imprisoned man loves his wife? Imagine that. The time would’ve been much better spent getting to know Rosewater. Being a cog in a giant soul-killing system like Bahari is is somewhat compelling, but even more compelling is the idea that your cog is still being manned by some unexceptional shithead with bad skin and an unfulfilling sex life who has never read Chekhov. Rosewater gets to this, just not nearly enough.
Also, if you’re going to film a guy’s daydreams as a way to spice up the reality of his crappy cell, couldn’t you at least have him daydream up a space ship or some cockfights or something? Bahari’s daydreams are almost all set inside his cell, as if his subconscious was on a budget. There’s a lot of arguing about what Bahari will tell his interrogator, which turns out not to matter much either way.
This is all a bummer, because before Bahari gets tossed into his grey cell, Rosewater was shaping up to be a solid movie (and mostly remains so outside of the cell scenes). Jon Stewart’s glib earnestness is the perfect match for this kind of material, and his ability to highlight what really matters in a story without skimping on humorous, human moments or overplaying the capital-D drama is exactly what made him famous in the first place. It’s dramatic without being melodramatic and honest without being dry. An unexpected delight is when Stewart directs a scene about a Daily Show segment and you get to see a behind-the-scenes take on the Daily Show from the man in charge. Even knowing it’s coming, as a Daily Show fan, you still get giggly and starstruck, like watching one of those oral history articles in action.
Rosewater could easily be an A movie with a few tweaks, it simply makes the mistake of belaboring the wrong parts of a good story. But as long as we’re focusing on the negatives, can we please stop it with the floating graphics to indicate text messages and tweets? I realize that Twitter played a huge part in the Iranian protests, and many credit them for inspiring the Arab Spring movement, but I’d like to think there’s a better way to illustrate the importance of social networking than with hashtags floating above the city and a word cloud graphic. We keep seeing this over and over – in Rosewater, in Chef, in Men, Women, and Children – male screenwriters of a certain age seem to be fascinated with social media. And that’s fine! No matter how jaded you are and sick of jargon-spewing tech douches in polo shirts whose job title includes the word “rockstar” driving up your rent (sorry for this mini-rant, I live inside the tech bubble), you still have to see that social media is altering the social paradigm. That’s something that deserves to be examined in fiction. All I’m saying is that there has to be a better way to illustrate this altered paradigm than with cutesy graphics that look like a software commercial you’d see on an airplane. “But how do you BUSINESS when you’re ON THE GO!” (*cartoon bird flies from brief case across the globe while ethnically diverse office staff smiles*) It’s a small issue with this film, but an incredibly obnoxious movie trend.