Mark Reviews Movies

Rosewater

ROSEWATER

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jon Stewart

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Claire Foy

MPAA Rating: R (for language including some crude references, and violent content)

Running Time: 1:43

Release Date: 11/14/14


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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 13, 2014

One wonders what drew Jon Stewart, one of the most vibrant and important satirists of our current times, to the story of Rosewater. Part of it is obvious: Maziar Bahari, who was a journalist with Newsweek at the time, was arrested by the Iranian government for practicing "media espionage" while covering the 2009 presidential election in that country. The evidence against him was a segment from the Stewart-hosted "The Daily Show," in which one of the show's "correspondents" pretended to be an American spy while interviewing Bahari. One has to assume there would be some lingering feelings of guilt on Stewart's part, even if the responsibility for what Bahari endured rests with neither the journalist nor the comedian.

With whom the responsibility lies is likely a major draw for Stewart's feature-film debut as a screenwriter and director. Here was—and still remains—a group of powerful men who didn't see the joking interview as an excuse to silence a journalist whose reporting put the results of the election in question on the world stage. In the movie, they legitimately believe it is incontrovertible proof that Bahari was speaking to an American spy, which is evidence that Bahari is part of a massive Western conspiracy to make the Iranian government look corrupt and foolish.

Beware the humorless men in positions of power. One of the last things they want is to look the fool, and they will do pretty much anything to correct that perception. In the process, they usually prove the thesis.

For the most part, the movie (based on Bahari's memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival) is a fairly conventional recounting of Bahari's experience in prison, which lasted 118 days with extended interrogations. The methods used to obtain a confession and televised apology from him included psychological and physical torture, such as a continuous isolation in solitary confinement, being blindfolded, beatings, and a mock execution.

On paper, the story is extraordinary. By way of Stewart's execution, it's far from that.

The movie is a little too on-the-nose. We see the spread of the Green Movement, a protest conducted by supporters of the opposition party after the more-than-likely fraudulent election, on social media throughout Iran by means of social-media hashtags spreading throughout Iran (The movie does succinctly and clearly establish the political and cultural climate of the country, with the flight attendant on a plane to Tehran praying for the Supreme Leader and a group of young men hiding satellite dishes in order to obtain access to restricted media). When Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal, learns that there has been a wave of media coverage throughout the world about his detainment, Stewart gives us the visual of a wave of television reports and headlines rushing toward the screen.

The ghosts of Bahari's father and sister, both of whom had been arrested and imprisoned by the Iranian government, haunt the mind of the journalist. He is unsure if he can show the same kind of strength against the government's tactics that his family members did. In case there's any doubt at this point, yes, there are conversations between Bahari and the ghosts of his father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani) in his mind.

Father and son debate the merits of remaining silent versus confessing for self-preservation. Bahari's mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) in Tehran is surely worried about her son. He has a pregnant wife (Claire Foy) in London, and certainly his father had to have been torn between resilience and familial duty when he was in prison for a crime—being a Communist—of which he was technically guilty. Bahari is innocent, but lying about being guilty may be the only way he will ever see his child.

There is nothing particularly insightful about the character or the effects of the conditions in which he suffers. The movie's observation of the men who detain Bahari, on the other hand, is far more intriguing in the simplicity of its depiction of them. Stewart sees them as people who simply do not get the joke.

Note the turning point in Bahari's relationship with his interrogator (Kim Bodnia), an ordinary man with a concerned wife at home and a dull sense of bureaucratic ambition. It comes not from some intense change in Bahari's personality or a revolutionary shift in power between the two men. It is merely in Bahari's realization of the type of man with whom he is dealing, and the answer is humor.

He starts mocking his "specialist" (Even the nicknames these government officials give themselves are severe) about his obsession with sex, and the interrogator is too set in his ways to comprehend the ridicule. The dismantling of the hypocrisy of a man whose base desires contradict the "decent" culture he represents ends up being a more effective critique of this system than the portrayal of Bahari's imprisonment and torture. The movie displays—but doesn't the point of—a genuine understanding of the absurdity of the situation for these bureaucrats, who work for a goal that can never truly be attained.

Rosewater is dutiful to its obligations, ending with a coda that relates the detainment of thousands of journalists and truth-seekers throughout the world. It's clear that interest in this project is sincere, but the movie feels more obligatory than heartfelt.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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