By Kyle G. King. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart blatantly brands itself as “a fake news program” (running recurring segments with nonsensical headlines like “Clusterfuck to the White House”, “Gaywatch / We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Newsed to It”, and “Baracknophobia”), and the show seems to work harder to mock the political theater of other news shows than it does to offer actual reporting of its own. Yet oftentimes beyond its smoke of satirical commentary The Daily Show presents stories and opinions that sharply air honest political concerns of the American people. Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater remains within that blend of politics and entertainment, yet attempts the opposite balancing act: to present a diplomatic account of the culture in Iran, but peppered with sentiments of humanity and the occasional chortle.
Rosewater’s screenplay was adapted by Stewart himself from Iranian video journalist Maziar Baharim’s memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love. The always lovable Gael Garcia Bernal fits comfortably into the role of Baharim; despite his Mexican heritage, Bernal still looks natural next to the native Iranian cast and cityscape. What precedes his imprisonment is some time spent in Tehran, Iran’s capital and Baharim’s birthplace. He has been sent by Newsweek to cover the 2009 Iranian election, leaving his pregnant wife back at home in London. He assures her “it’s just one week.” Arrested and imprisoned by the Iranian government for 118 days under suspicion of espionage, most of the film is spent with him in his white walled cell of solitary confinement.
When Baharim arrives in Tehran, he is immediately submerged back into the rich culture of Iran: one that has a turbulent history between its people and its government, one that blurs lines between what is legal and illegal, and what is righteous and corrupt. These inherent conflicts are subtly fine-tuned in the film’s distraught characters, both in their provided backstories and their actions that play out on screen. What effectively builds is an organic sense of mistrust and paranoia between everyone on screen and everything you’re being shown, something the film does best. Where it falters is when it deviates from that ominous mood. The changes in mood and tone are very abrupt, and not stylishly so: they don’t shock you so much as reveal the fingerprints of a young filmmaker (in career not age, Stewart turned a ripe 52 last week).
Beyond the mishandling of mood shifts, the film has several other shortcomings that keep it from resonating as deeply as it could. While all the characters in fact do a great job of properly seasoning the taste of Iran, they are oftentimes without flavor themselves. Bahari has a great moment of change and revelation in character when he finally decides to act by recording the Green Protests, and also risks incriminating himself. The moment of change registers on Bernal’s face, that much is evident, but the story shows nothing else to evoke any opportunity for the audience to change with him. It’s asking the audience for a lot and ultimately won’t pay it back when we arrive at the dramatic pseudo-torture scenes that follow.
Yet another symptom of a young filmmaker at work is the mixed media element Stewart imposes on a few select scenes. Twitter and social media are a valid source of activism for The Green Movement within Iran, but overlapping textual hashtags throughout a cityscape to address current events and trends would take a lot of tact to not read as cheesy, here it fails and ineffectively shifts the tone for little payoff other than to showcase the technology. The energy of Iranian activists is better supported with the real footage of the election protests and even more so when Bahari meets the grassroots organization of “the educated”, a group of young men and women who are so-named named because their headquarters are host to a stockpile of working satellite dishes. The dishes are used to obtain news feeds from around the world that would otherwise be censored and forbidden by their government. It is here where we are introduced to Bahari’s reluctance and fear to record scandalous subject matter. He puts his camera down once he’s shown the satellite dishes.
When Bahari does finally decide to use his camera as “a real weapon”, his videos are found to be treasonous by the incumbent powers that be and he is arrested on charges of espionage and imprisoned at Evin Prison. Within the prison, the film slows itself and thusly tortures the audiences with a single setting in dull rooms of blank walls. Bahari is not a religious man (perhaps as a result of his displacement from Iran) and while imprisoned he draws hope not from a holy text but rather from his past and his memories. Delusional conversations with his father, his older sister, his wife, the books he had read, the music of Leonard Cohen (which was a large part of his blossoming exposure to Western Culture and a beautiful voice for Bahari to dance to); these supporting details offer some of the films best visuals, which all become an oasis away from the bleak windowless setting in which Bahari, and in turn the audience, is trapped.
During an interview on The Daily Show after the films release, Gael Garcia Bernal describes filming at a real prison where actual political prisoners are being held and he poses the question, “is it worth it?”, is the act of creating interpretation to these events worth the effort? Although Rosewater suffers some stylistic missteps, it seems wholeheartedly worth bringing these events and issues to the attention of the American public (the film’s language is entirely English and not Persian, Iran’s official language). Rosewater also provides a superb emotional and intimate performance from Bernal and several intelligent and nonpartisan perspectives regarding the issues the Iranian people and their government face against each other. What it lacks is a well-trained eye for supporting the bigger picture of storytelling. Jon Stewart has certainly established that he has a gift for presenting political thrillers, but he will need to learn how to apply finesse before he can confidently step away from his desk at The Daily Show and Comedy Central in favor of a folding chair and a camera.