A strong debut film by The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart, there’s still some room for improvement in the earnest and entirely nonthreatening Rosewater. Some first-time filmmakers opt for going full-bore with their freshman work, laying on the style and emotion in sloppy layers as if the project were the only movie they were ever going to make; as a writer and director, Stewart goes the opposite route, soft-selling the story behind the movie, keeping the tension loose and the stakes low.
The film is based on a true incident from 2009, in which Iranian-born, London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) traveled to Tehran to cover Iran’s contentious presidential election between incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and popular secular challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Questionable (and possibly fraudulent) polling results lead to rioting, which Bahari shoots and airs footage of. that, combined with an ill-timed interview with Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones, causes him to be arrested on charges of “media espionage”, proving that truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and just as Kafkaesque.
Bahari is subsequently detained for interrogation for more than four months, most of them spent with a “specialist” (a polite and chillingly Orwellian term for interrogator) whom he nicknames “Rosewater” for the cologne he bastes himself in (played Kim Bodnia of the original Scandinavian version of the TV series The Bridge). Bahari’s situation is a bad one, largely through no fault of his own: He’s an expat married to a Englishwoman (Claire Foy) and employed by the Western media, and his late father and sister who both served time as political prisoners. The young man he hires as a personal driver, Davood (Dmitri Leonidas), introduces him to a clique of young idealists with a rooftop garden of illegal satellite dishes that provide them with illicit information from the outside world. In the eyes of the state, Bahari is guilty by association at the very least.
Rosewater is an intriguing character, though his full potential goes unrealized. He’s a small-minded man who sees himself a something more, thought it eventually becomes evident to him and us that his superiors will never allow him to be more than thug, a blunt instrument handy to have around when brute force is needed. Bitter and frustrated, Rosewater sees Bahari as both a way up the ladder and a means to vent his frustration and resentment, the irony being that he was once held prisoner during the reign of the Shah.
However, the battle of wits between the two is sorely lacking in teeth; Rosewater comes across as the world’s oldest petulant child, and Bahari seems to cave to easily to the deprivations of prison, and bounce back just as quickly in the final act. His imaginary jail cell conversations with his late father (Haluk Bilginer) add a nice touch of surrealism to an otherwise cut-and-dried story.
It’s no surprise that the story appealed to Stewart; he’s a canny satirist who’s made his fame and fortune by razzing the uptight assholes of the world — which is what makes Rosewater such a letdown. It’s a mildly engaging film, it’s also one that doesn’t rattle around in the viewer’s for very long after the credits role, because Stewart neither goes for the throat with his trademark satire, nor steps out of character to indulge his outrage. Taking the path of least resistance, the result is a missed opportunity, a lightweight approach to some very heavy material.