Despite a tone that is meant to be satirical, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” plays an important role in American politics. A sad statement on American media it may be, but his show is more often than not the voice of reason in the seemingly endless deluge of fear mongering and scapegoating that major news networks like to drum up. Whether it intends to or not, his show has an effect on people. Nobody is this truer for than Maziar Bahari, a journalist who spent 118 torturous days in an Iranian detainment facility for, among other things, appearing on “The Daily Show.” His 2009 interview with correspondent Jason Jones was used as evidence against him, as he found himself accused of espionage for America and against Iran.
“Rosewater,” directed by Stewart in his directorial debut and based on Bahari’s memoir, “Then They Came for Me,” tells a fascinating story, one that is bound to stick with viewer’s long after its credits have rolled. Unfortunately, it’s a case of the story being more interesting than the film’s overall construction. Stewart’s inexperience shines through here, much in the way one might expect when watching a directorial debut, as its tone is inconsistent and its narrative fails to find a rhythm. Even with a runtime of only 103 minutes, “Rosewater” feels much longer, partially due to its varying flow that Stewart can’t seem to get a hold of. Nevertheless, the story is so strong that it makes up for its subpar construction, though if it interests you, you might be better off just reading the book.
The most successful element of “Rosewater,” bar none, is the terrific lead performance by Gael Garcia Bernal, who gives his all. One senses that the story struck a chord with him, as he pours himself into this role in a way few actors do. He manages to hit all the emotional highs and lows such a traumatic experience would inevitably bring, even as the surrounding film fails to do the same. He carries this movie, as Stewart more often than not keeps the camerawork simple and lets his actors do the heavy lifting. Such an approach is the mark of a director who either knows when he has something good going or who doesn’t quite know how to spice things up. In this case, I imagine it’s a little bit of both.
That’s not to say Stewart doesn’t occasionally try to stretch his directing muscles, but when doing so, he fails. His artistic flourishes stand out like sore thumbs, like tactics an amateur film student would use when trying to make their film more “artsy.” This is best exemplified early on as Bahari walks down the street, narration going on about his family’s past while accompanying video plays in the background. It’s a moment that doesn’t work and feels more appropriate for a documentary about this story rather than a dramatic retelling, as does an odd sequence where Twitter hashtags fly about the screen as the world tweets their outrage over Iran’s election results, the very same election Bahari was meant to cover.
Too often, these misplaced stylish diversions get in the way of the actual story at hand. As Bahari suffers both physically and mentally in his cell, the screenplay, which is also written by an inexperienced Stewart, brings forth his dead relatives to converse with, to give him strength and hope and help him battle through the awful events he must endure. Nearly all of these moments land with a thud, particularly when Bahari tries to convince one of them that his beliefs that he fought for were misguided. There’s a revelatory moment here, as the camera lingers on the ghost’s face. Or maybe it was his lingering soul. Or, more likely, a hallucination. Regardless, the guy isn’t there and isn’t facing these current hardships. Such a revelation is unnecessary.
Still, “Rosewater” is absolutely worth seeing. If there was ever a movie that could be described as being more than the sum of its parts, it’s this one. Though not always successful, it’s always interesting and it kept me hooked all the way through, despite my knowing of how the real world event ended. That, if nothing else, is the mark of a story worth experiencing.
Rosewater receives 3.5/5