Review: Jon Stewart finds humor in the harrowing true story of ‘Rosewater’

TELLURIDE – In recent years, Journalists have come under siege all across the world from governments trying to minimize their influence either through subtle or not-so subtle means.  One of the more dramatic instances in recent memory was chronicled in Maziar Bahari's 2011 memoir “Then They Came for Me” which has been adapted into the new film “Rosewater.” The film, with director Jon Stewart on hand, debuted Friday night at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival.

“They Came For Me” depicted the 118 days the noted reporter and documentary filmmaker spent in an Iranian jail after being falsely accused of acting as a spy for Western powers.  The London-based Bahari had returned to Tehran to cover the 2009 presidential election where Mir-Hossein Mousavi was providing a revolutionary challenge to the president at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Controversy reigned after the latter was announced the victor prompting millions of Iranians to protest the results in cities across the Islamic state. A few days after reporting on one particularly violent protest, Bahari found himself taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guard.

“Rosewater” has become noteworthy because it just happens to be Stewart's directorial debut, but the “Daily Show” icon has something to say about institutionalized torture and the fate of a free press around the globe.  It”s a somewhat bumpy road for the first time filmmaker, but it”s surprisingly effective when it needs to be.

The movie finds Gael Garcia Bernal as the aforementioned Bahari, a man whose father and older sister both spent time in Iranian prisons for rebelling against the powers that be. Bahari is staying with his mother (a very good Shohreh Aghdashloo) while covering the upcoming election.  The first third of the “Rosewater” chronicles Bahari”s work as he meets a slew of young, educated Iranians who believe change is at hand with Mir-Hossein Mousavi”s campaign.  Bahrai also takes a few minutes to talk about the current state of Iran with none other than Jason Jones who is shooting a typical “Daily Show” report making fun of the preconceived notions Americans have about the country.  This interview happened in real life and, obviously, is the beginning of Stewart”s connection to the story.

Eventually, Bahari is arrested on espionage charges and begins a grueling 3 ½ months of psychological torture in Tehran”s notorious Evin Prison.  Bahari spends hours every day under the guise of an assigned specialist (Kim Bodnia) he nicknames Rosewater because of the fragrance he douses himself with.  His captor”s job is to get Bahari to admit to being a spy for the CIA, MI6, the Mossad and, no joke, Newsweek (one of his public outlets).  As the days turn into weeks, Bahari begins to have conversations in his cell with his father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani). They provide him with the inspiration to keep fighting after Rosewater insists his mother, pregnant wife and employers have all abandoned him.

The real Bahari received a significant amount of beatings, but Stewart purposely leaves those as a minimum.  In a Q&A after the premiere, Stewart revealed he wanted to avoid “movie torture” and felt it would be more frightening to portray Iran”s interrogation protocol as the banal and institutionalized system it currently is. That decision works for the most part, but in hindsight by providing one more violent scene the audience might be more desperate for Bahari to escape and, therefore, have them more invested in the outcome of the story.

Stewart, who also wrote the screenplay, includes a number of funny moments between Bahari and Rosewater that viewers should realize are actually in the book.   Rosewater was ignorant of many things outside of his job and obsessed with the American state of New Jersey as well as how many of Bahari”s co-workers he”d slept with.   One of the ways Bahari kept his sanity and amused himself was by indulging Rosewater with stories on those subjects (and who seemingly believed them).

Another portion of the film where Stewart shows real skill as a filmmaker are the scenes between Bahari and his father.  Stewart and his editor, Jay Rabinowitz, always let you hear the father, but in an inventive twist they cut between the actor being in the shot with Bernal or Bernal seemingly speaking to thin air.   

Where Stewart shows his limitations is his decision to impose computer graphics over a live action scene. This is mostly used to depict the advent of social media fueling the protests in Iran, but just feels out of context (and feels too similar to Bill Condon”s “The Fifth Estate” where it didn”t work either).  Stewart is also hamstrung by so much of the movie needing to take place in either Bahari”s cell or Rosewater”s interrogation room.  This causes the film to drag a bit, especially when Rosewater is repeating the same talking points again and again to Bahari.

One person who will likely never get his due for his strong work in “Rosewater” is Bernal.  The 35-year-old actor is superb at capturing Bahari”s fear, amusement and, ultimately, exasperation at his predicament.   Considering he”s often wearing a blindfold for almost al of Bahari”s interrogation scenes, that”s a pretty significant compliment.

Stewart, his director of photography Bobby Bukowski (“The Messenger”) and production designer Gerald Sullivan also deserve kudos for shooting Jordan for Iran on such a minimal budget.

“Rosewater” is scheduled to open in limited release on Nov. 7.