Movie Review: “Rosewater”

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You may recall that in 2009, Newsweek reporter and Iranian native Maziar Bahari was incarcerated by the Iranian government for more than 115 days—in solitary confinement, no less—under false allegations that he was a spy for Western interests. Bahari’s plight made international headlines, with efforts from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, leading to his belated release. Bahari’s ordeal is worth remembering, because in a time when anybody’s phone can become a recording device, Bahari could be you or me.

Jon Stewart certainly didn’t forget about Bahari; in fact, “The Daily Show” played a bizarre role in the journalist’s capture. When under interrogation, Bahari was accused of espionage thanks, in part, to a summer 2009 appearance on Stewart’s program in which correspondent Jason Jones joked with him about espionage.

At any rate, Bahari’s story, which he turned into a best-seller, has been adapted into Stewart’s debut feature as a writer-director—the result of those 12 weeks last year when Stewart vacated his anchor desk. Titled “Rosewater,” the film is moving at times and properly infuriating at others, but it can also be facile and portentous, the work of a TV funnyman trying his darndest to be sincere and important when he’s still best at taking scathing potshots at authority figures.

Some of the best scenes in “Rosewater” are the early ones. Early one morning in July 2009, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is wrenched from his slumber by uncouth government men in suits. They raid his cosmopolitan DVD collection; they label his copy of the Italian art film “Teorema” and his Sopranos box sets as “pornography.” They question his music collection, which includes an LP by the “Jew,” Leonard Cohen. He’s thrown into the back of a car, where he won’t see the light of day for four months.

Then, Stewart flashes back to 11 days earlier, with Bahari leaving his newly pregnant wife for a well-paying assignment covering the Iranian elections of 2009 (remember Ahmadinejad’s “landslide victory”?) The more he interviews young people taking to the streets to protest the election results, the more he becomes swept up in the Green Revolution. He is soon thrust from observer to participant, shooting video of Iranian military raining gunfire down on protestors, which likely led to his imprisonment.

This conflation of journalist and activist is the most complex idea in “Rosewater,” but once Bahari winds up in Evin Prison, the film becomes so straightforward it practically flatlines into a message movie of surface-skimming simplicity. Stewart lacks either the skill or the inclination (or both) to present Bahari’s time in jail as the hellish nightmare it was. There are too many diversions into the outside world, too many ill-fated jokes and awkward musical intrusions, too many stagy and pretentious hallucinations (mostly from Bahari’s father, who was imprisoned in the ‘50s for supporting Communism).

As a result, Bahari’s plight never feels uncomfortable or disturbing like it should; it’s a far cry from Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” or Robert Bresson’s “A Man Escaped,” prison studies which felt like torture—in a good way. In a real way. Stewart’s film is shot like a television movie, safe and handsome, pushing few buttons and leaving little incentive for a second viewing. It goes through the motions, re-iterating what the news junkies among us already knew, petering toward an anticlimax.

This is not to say Stewart should have fabricated hunger strikes and brutal prisoner abuse that Bahari didn’t encounter. But it is to say that perhaps Bahari’s story is still best told in his own words, where filmic structure means naught, where us readers can act as our own cinematographers and editors—and where four torturous months can feel, unforgettably, like four torturous months.

“Rosewater” opens Friday, Nov. 14 in South Florida; theaters include Cinemark Palace and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Cinemark Boynton Beach, Carmike Parisian in West Palm Beach and the Classic Gateway Theater in Fort Lauderdale.