Never did a film release year so desperately need a breath of earnestness as this one did. Fortunately, between Transformers oh Fuck We’re Still Doing This, Exodus: “It’s Not Brownface if we Don’t Admit it,” and two Lars Von Trier films (he’s maximizing potential misery by dividing his films into parts now), we got Rosewater. And while part of me was tempted to recuse myself on this movie – Jon Stewart’s had an incalculably large impact on my growth as an analyst, and overwhelming admiration has a way of coloring your senses – it ultimately fit in a bit too well with this blog’s mission statement to overlook.
For those unaware, Rosewater is the directorial debut of famous American satirist Jon Stewart, aka “the reason John Oliver hosted The Daily Show that one summer,” and adapts the Maziar Bahari memoir Then They Came for Me. We begin with Bahari preparing for a short trip to Iran to visit his mother and do some reporting for Newsweek about the 2009 elections. While there, he winds up befriending supporters of Ahmadinejad’s opponents and catching footage of the brutality used against protesters of Ahmadinejad’s supposedly “sweeping” electoral win – and with contacts in the States, Bahari’s footage is some of the one stuff able to be widely seen. A few days later, he’s arrested as a supposed “American spy,” and incarcerated with no knowledge of when he might be let back out.
In extremely broad strokes, Rosewater is your basic Inspiring True Story kind of film: we have a hero who does a Brave Thing, suffers torment from unjust oppressors, and comes out the other side an unbroken survivor. It’s a formula that is regularly and unrepentantly turned into easily parsed syrup, not interested in much more than patting the audience on the back for having been evolved enough to have sat through it (yes I am thinking of The Help, why do you ask?). And while there are a few moments in Rosewater that don’t work (particularly, the transition from despair and hope, both for the film and Bahari, lands somewhat leadenly and leaves the third act scrabbling a bit to readjust itself), it’s more thoughtful and honest than it might have been under almost any other director.
Indeed, it wouldn’t have worked at all if not for the creative team being so tightly bound to the emotional core of the film. Just before he was arrested, you see, Bahari appeared as an interview subject for one of The Daily Show’s field pieces, and that bit of video was later used as proof that Bahari was a spy. Stewart’s distress in the aftermath of the arrest was fairly palpable to behold, and he and Bahari seem to have formed a fairly close friendship following the journalist’s release. So there’s a strange, almost palpable air of repentance and affection to every move the film makes, one which I think (though I cannot be sure) bleeds through even without knowing the story behind the film’s creation.
The part of me that believes that art must be able to stand up for the inevitable day when the context of its creation is lost wants to discard all of that background material – and several reviews of the film have given it lower scores on just such grounds. But I can’t. Because this is a film whose entire thematic backbone works in the study of humans, humanity, and the interaction those two things have with the media (you begin to see why I’m recommending it to you, dear readers). The narrative walks a double edged sword of media: illegal satellite dishes allow dissenters access to media outside of the control of the Iranian government, while The Daily Show clip and the data on Bahari’s computer becomes a weapon to incriminate and threaten him; media figureheads in Iran and the West both seek the truth and create obfuscating narratives for the sake of political campaigns, and the idea of justice goes a lot farther by virtue of having marketable connections. In fact, the film hits its biggest rough spot in breaking out of these intertwining dualities to show the social media campaign and media pressure that got Bahari freed, a necessary plot device that somewhat destabilizes the tone.
Characters themselves become vessels of media. Bahari is haunted, thematically and literally, by the specters of his father and sister (who were also imprisoned by the Iranian state) throughout the film. His father is an imposing figure of history, described in mental projections on shop windows and often as abstract as the past might seem to be to those of us born in the new millennium – he prods Bahari to makes chess pieces out of rocks to sharpen his mind in prison, the picture of giving meaning and self-betterment out of the most miserable and seemingly useless of components. His sister, who showed him banned films and bought him Leonard Cohen albums, is both the more passionate and fragile light in the darkness – culture is a source of hope and connection with others, but in isolation (as Bahari is for so much of the film) it can seem meaningless. It positions art not as something to entertain or to ensure posterity but to create history between people and to express the emotions suffered in those moments of isolation. From a satirical tv show to a memoir to a film (and that union of media and activism comes as early as development, with Bahari himself quite a close consultant on the film’s development).
And then there are the film’s politics, which could so easily have painted its colors in blacks and whites and had done. But while the audience’s sympathies for Bahari are never in anything like doubt, there’s a clear struggle going on to find the core of humanity at the source of monstrous things (aided by an extremely strong ensemble cast, with Gael Garcia Bernal in particular carrying off a beautiful expression of a role with a great deal of necessarily nonverbal and interior struggle). Bahari’s contact in Ahmadinejad’s political campaign is originally from Britain, taken in by the nationalistic bluster he’s parroting. Bahari’s mother is a beautiful portrait of old scars and love for her son, always on the edge of throwing her own safety away just to give voice to those years of loss and agony.
Even Bahari’s interrogator (“Mr. Rosewater” in the memoir, a connection that is given very briefly and nonverbally at the start of the film) has an uneasy humanity to him – anxious about continuing to torture Bahari even after his false confession, but not enough to risk his job, leaving us to watch the simmering tension and anger at his very precarious position paradoxically coming out against Bahari himself. There is even the hint of parallel between interrogator and victim as Bahari signs a false confession and Rosewater looks for false answers, both to please a capricious state…only to find themselves worse off than where they were before, aside of living one more day. And then there are the disquieting scenes of Bahari’s dissident friends, nobodies with no political clout or Western contacts to keep them from being beaten and left to rot – little moments the film has no answer for, but is eager for us not to forget in the midst of celebrating Bahari’s freedom.
I can’t say that there’s a nascent directorial genius at work here – there are some creative shots and some clever visual tricks and staging to go along with the long scenes of shot-reverse-shot dialogue, and Stewart’s scene of dry wit serves the script excellently (like his show, there’s very much the sense that if we don’t laugh we’ll start crying and never stop). But it’s equally clear that those moments of clarity are served by the passion tied to this particular story, by Stewart’s connection to both the man and the complex themes underlying it (the conceit of the infamous field report – that Iraqis Are People Too, America – burns beneath those character moments). And if he finds another such story down the line that speaks to him this strongly, I’ve confidence that it’ll be a fine film too.