By Marshall Shaffer
It is fairly common for a director to choose a protagonist that they identify with to some degree – after all, why devote years of your life to telling someone’s story if you cannot connect to them? Thus, Christopher Nolan directs films about obsessive heroes, David O. Russell has recently been looking at characters trying to reinvent themselves, and Woody Allen devotes movie after movie to sexually tense intellectuals (just to name a few).
At first glance, few similarities appear between Jon Stewart, the director of the film “Rosewater,” and its subject, Maziar Bahari. Stewart is, of course, a wildly popular satirical newscaster who has left an indelible mark on American political discourse. Bahari, on the other hand, is an Iranian-Canadian journalist who dared to document the tense 2009 elections in his home country. They did happen to somewhat cross paths, though, as Bahari appeared on a segment for The Daily Show.
This humorous interview was entertainment for Americans and evidence for the Iranian government, which was looking to clamp down on dissidents in the wake of former President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election. Bahari spent nearly four months in jail there, much of it in solitary confinement, while being interrogated ruthlessly as an enemy of the state. “Rosewater” may very well exist as a film to placate the guilt in Stewart’s soul for his small role in causing this pain.
Yet self-absolution is far too simplistic an explanation for the film, as Stewart clearly identifies a kindred spirit in Bahari. They face remarkably different circumstances and stakes in their line of work, obviously, but Stewart and Bahari both speak truth to power by relying on principles of logic and reason. In the face of resistance, neither is afraid to use to ridicule the institutional folly. Whether Bahari actually embodies these characteristics is anybody’s guess. It is not hard, however, to imagine Stewart standing in the holding cell delivering his lines.
his strong directorial and authorial spirit as embodied through Bahari (played in a typically masterful performance by Gael Garcia Bernal) is the current that carries “Rosewater” towards enlightenment and entertainment. As well-intentioned as Stewart’s directorial debut might be, it is certainly not without its issues. What first features are perfect, though, save maybe “Citizen Kane?”
There are the simple miscalculations, such as some corny graphics trying to translate the power of social media into visual terms – but in all fairness, their seamless integration eludes experienced filmmakers. Stewart does make a concerted effort to spice up the visual language of his film, which “Rosewater” needs given how confined much of the story is to a single location. He is no Danny Boyle, to be sure, yet the piece moves along rather nicely considering his presumably limited filmmaking vocabulary.
Then there are the larger, more problematic issues with the film. Ironically, many of them originate in the sense of humor that also gives “Rosewater” its distinct character. Bahari might laugh at the absurdity of the grounds of his imprisonment, he is being held captive against his will nonetheless. Stewart’s decidedly light-handed directorial touch minimizes Bahari’s pain and suffering almost to the point of trivializing it altogether. Not all movies about prison need grounding in the brutal psychological realism of a “Starred Up” or a “Hunger,” but glossing over the deleterious effects of something like solitary confinement raises some ethical questions.
All these concerns notwithstanding, “Rosewater” is still an impressive and worthwhile film – especially when considering that Stewart assumed such unfamiliar roles in order to bring a story to audiences that he found important. Making the film involved taking months away from his television day job (and is subsequently responsible for the gift of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver“) and going out on a limb to write and direct for the cinema. Some things and people are worth taking a chance for, and it is satisfying to see that risk pay off as nicely as it does here.
“Rosewater” opens Friday at a/perture cinema.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE.