Jon Stewart’s Rosewater stars Gael García Bernal as Maziar Bahari, a documentary filmmaker and journalist who was arrested by Iranian authorities in the summer of 2009. Bahari was covering the wave of protests following the reelection of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—an outcome widely denounced as fraud on the part of the hardline Islamist government. While many asked if Iran was on the cusp of a revolution, Supreme Leader Khamenei pulled a switch that would be echoed a few years later by Egypt’s General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi against Islamists: holding demonstrators legally culpable for any ensuing bloodshed ahead of time. At a rally, Bahari is seen managing to get video footage of a protestor being shot at long range by a Basij sniper. After The Guardian publishes it, he’s swiftly arrested on suspicion of being a spy for whomever the crackdown finds politically convenient: Green Wave reformists, the C.I.A., Mossad, “the Jews.” Rosewater’s screenplay marks the passage of events in Iran’s near-fateful summer only up to this point, abruptly transitioning its third-act scenery into the inward space of the prison, and of Bahari’s own mind.
Blindfolded in anonymous, talcum-colored rooms, Bahari’s incarceration is a spectacle of dull repetition, his nameless handler (Kim Bodnia) dressing him down in a whirlwind of accusations both tenuous and impossible to disprove. In Then They Came For Me, his memoir of the 118 days he spent hostage, the real-life Bahari nicknamed this man “Rosewater,” after the unmistakable scent of his perfume. As indicated by the opening flashback, wherein a young Bahari visits a mosque and smells rosewater for the first time, the film feels archly bemused by the collisions of religious and secular influence on its hero’s personality. (Rosewater confiscates Bahari’s DVDs, including The Sopranos and Teorema, accusing him of carrying pornography.) The state’s “evidence” of Bahari’s spy career includes a sarcastic performance in a Daily Show skit featuring correspondent Jason Jones called “Persians of Interest,” in which the real-life Bahari called Ahmadinejad “an idiot.” Bahari was mercilessly beaten, tortured, and kept awake for days, but the film seems squeamish to either slow itself down or rub the audience’s nose in the Evin Prison dirt.
Stewart deserves credit for trying to resist the inherent triumph-of-the-human-spirit proposition that haunts all movies like Rosewater, but the struggle nevertheless ends in a draw. As much seems obvious in a wincingly trailer-ready scene of Bahari gleefully waltzing to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” in his cell, the music suddenly snuffed out when Stewart smash-cuts to the video monitor silently cataloguing the detainee’s every twirl. Bahari learns to commiserate with the ghost of his own father (Haluk Bilginer), who was imprisoned and tortured under the Shah for being a communist. Above all other considerations, he insists that Bahari refuse to give in—to be “broken.” For the sake of his pregnant wife (Claire Foy) in London, Bahari grows to disagree with his father, and soon assents to uttering whatever bullshit party-line apology has been written for him on national television.
Bahari’s final scene with his father’s ghost is a passionate argument, every bit as subtle as it sounds: The young prisoner explains that a gulag is a gulag, whether it’s Stalinist, capitalist, or Islamist. (That the real-life Rosewater’s father was also imprisoned by the Shah is weirdly elided from Stewart’s adaptation.) Perhaps for the wiser, Rosewater shrugs off the bigger questions about Iranian politics its first half appears to raise, falling back instead on a gestalt of the eternal, Kafkaesque regime, wherever the viewer may find it. Given Bernal’s rendering of a seasoned journalist as a total naïf and the fact that the Iran-set film is in mimetic English, it all becomes uncomfortably slick—a specific geopolitical story stretched uncomfortably to parable-size. This retreat to the middle is echoed in Howard Shore’s generic, weeping score, which may as well have been licensed from a million Hollywood Middle-East-set thrillers. So many pundits and journalists have tried grilling Stewart on how seriously he does or doesn’t take his work on The Daily Show. In the context of this question, Rosewater appears as a line in the sand, lamenting a world in which a fatuous TV personality can stay at the top while a serious journalist can get locked up on the opposite side of the same joke.