I remember distinctly when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show for three months to head to Jordan to shoot his directorial debut. It was an interesting time both because John Oliver took his spot (and did an excellent job there) but also because I was just so curious what he was making. Jon Stewart making a movie in Jordan? What?
And I immediately knew that I had to see it whenever it was finally available. Initial reception was a bit tepid, but it didn’t matter. I had to see it for myself and give it a fair shake. The Daily Show plays a significant enough role in my life that I felt I owed its host that much.
Fortunately, Rosewater is something worth watching.
Director: Jon Stewart
Release Date: November 14, 2014
Rosewater is based on a true story. Usually, “Based on a true story” or “Based on This Person’s Autobiography” or whatever means that the film was inspired by reality but does not necessarily reflect reality. That isn’t the case here. Jon Stewart was invested in this story long before the concept of a film about these events was even conceived. After Bahari’s arrest, Stewart covered it on The Daily Show throughout the 118 day confinement, hoping that it might put some pressure on the Iranian leadership to release him from prison. And though he didn’t know it at the time, Stewart’s show was actually used as evidence against Bahari.
In the days leading up to his arrest, Maziar Bahari did an interview with Jason Jones of The Daily Show fame. If you’ve ever seen The Daily Show, you can probably guess what it was like, but now pretend like the viewer doesn’t have a sense of humor. Jason Jones says that he is an American spy, and obviously he’s joking… but how is an Iranian interrogator to know that? And so, here is a dangerous man asking why Bernal is talking to an American spy, and Bernal can’t really do anything but laugh. Because… what else can you do?
Beyond the personal connection, it’s that absurdity that drew Stewart to the project. From the outset, he had been talking to Bahari about adapting his novel, Then They Came For Me, and when it all came down to it, the easiest way to make it happen was for Stewart to do it himself. And he did.
But what this all boils down to is the fact that Rosewater is an accurate representation of the events in a way that so few “True” movies are. Bahari was consulted during the writing process and was on set throughout the production. He saw multiple rough cuts and was integral in the creative process. And even if things are condensed or skipped over for this reason or that, it comes from a desire to tell this story as it was rather than some romanticized version of it.
And that leads to a film that is particularly poignant. This is a film that has things to say, and it wants you to hear them. This isn’t just the story of Maziar Bahari, because there are so many others now who are in exactly his position. There are people undergoing the exact same treatment (and worse), and those people don’t have the backing of major international news publications behind them calling for their release. Bahari was lucky, in that sense, to be who he was. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been in the position at all, but his 118 day confinement could have (likely would have) been far, far longer than it was.
But even knowing that Bahari gets out (and that there is something akin to a happy ending) does little to diminish the horrors of his captivity. But it’s not horrible in the way you might expect. This isn’t National Security, nor even the first ten minutes of Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, the torture itself barely even comes off as torture. But, of course, keeping a man in isolation for 118 days is torture. Bringing him out of solitary confinement only to berate him with the same questions over and over and over again is torture. Threatening his life and his family’s is torture. Forcing him to write and sign a false confession and humiliating himself on national television is torture.
And it’s effective, but it’s effective mostly because it’s real. There’s something inherently meaningful in knowing that the events being depicted actually happened. If Rosewater were an original idea, then the whole thing would fall apart. The narrative structure is somewhat odd, and I was particularly confused/bothered by the periodic conversations between Bahari and an imagined vision of his father. While in solitary confinement, he is frequently “visited” by his father, and they talk about this and that. And although it was clear that Bahari was alone thanks to the wide shots of an empty room, his father’s presence felt real enough to be distracting, especially because the character seemed to reveal things that Bahari himself didn’t know. Considering his father wasn’t actually there, it made the whole thing feel very odd.
Odder still was how on-the-nose the discussions were. And that’s actually a problem with the dialogue in general. There isn’t a whole lot of subtlety in the script, which is fine sometimes but hurts it elsewhere. There’s a surprising amount of humor (though perhaps not, considering Stewart was at the helm), which mixes things up in an interesting way, but I wish people had spent a little less time talking about their feelings and a little more time just feeling. Gael Garcia Bernal is a supremely talented actor, and he gives an excellent performance. He doesn’t need to state the obvious, and the fact that he so frequently does is unfortunate.
But despite these issues and any others I have, everything is still bound by the phrase, “Based on a true story.” And because of that, Rosewater hits home, whether or not it deserves to.