It’s safe to say that for the last several decades Jon Stewart has been one of the most powerful voices in comedy. Since taking over The Daily Show, his show has been the beacon for popular American political satire, showing through his witty segments, farcical interviews done by a series of correspondents, or his probing interviews a dialogue about the state of the world that’s rarely seen on television. His show helped birthed numerous careers, including both Steven Colbert and John Oliver, both of whom have gone on to host their own shows that have shared DNA with Stewart’s comedic proclivities.
During the run up to the 2009 Iranian elections, Stewart and his producers sent stalwart correspondent Jason Jones to cover the story from the streets. Using their regular mode of farce and hyperbole, Jones’ segment was of course much more about American ignorance about all the “terrorists” in Iran. This was so different from the citizens across the ocean we actually saw in the segment: young Iranians playing Playstation, talking about family and an appreciation for American people and culture.
In one of those interviews, Jones spoke with Maziar Bahari, an Iranian/Canadian Newsweek correspondent who had been on the Daily Show before. Bahari too was in Tehran to cover the elections, and the segment poked fun, with Jones accusing Bahari of being a spy.
Bahari was subsequently arrested, and held for months under suspicion of treason and spying for the Americans, the Zionists, the CIA, and (supposedly) the CIA’s front, Newsweek magazine. The interrogators played the Daily Show clip as proof of his culpability, and these political operators (smelling of “sweat and Rosewater”, giving the project its name) held Bahari to account for his sin – showing the world that the Iranian people were part of the greater human community, and not so very different from people anywhere else in the world.
For the last several years, Stewart has been working with Bahari to craft a feature film version of these events. Casting Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari, the film traces the events leading up to the imprisonment, including a recreation of Jones’ interview from a café in Tehran. Shot last summer in Jordan (a hiatus from his show that saw Oliver’s star rise), Stewart’s debut film manages to provide a decent overview of the events, with some strong emotional moments that speak to the horror of the situation.
For those unaware of the story, there will be much to recommend about the film version. The performances are strong, and the pace of the film is well regulated, keeping things both coherent and engaging. Yet, I can’t help but feel disappointed in the final outcome, feeling that the film doesn’t go far enough in two fundamentally important ways to a story such as this. There’s a brutality to the behaviour that while showcased never really comes across as intensely as it perhaps should. As filmmakers we’ve become inured at times to these kind of movies, and the work doesn’t really engage with the harsher aspects of the imprisonment with enough emotional investment as it should.
rosewater_poster.jpgMore problematically, the film’s shift in tone to the surreal is also not nearly as effective as I would have hoped. This is a story that’s littered with gallows humour, the sheer surrealism of interrogators obsessed with massages in a paradise-like New Jersey, or confusing a student film for being Israeli propaganda and The Daily Show for being a news report, is of course elucidated but never quite mirrored in the way the film is constructed. These darkly comic elements are illustrated, but the tone of the film never allows them to truly reach down to plumb the depths of the absurdity of the situation.
It’s fair to say that Stewart’s directorial debut is very much a passion project, and it’s a commendable film certain to get the story to a wider audience. Unfortunately, it just felt a little bit too down the middle, never engaging with the horror and the humour in a way that made the slide from one aspect to another feel as jarring and emotionally troubling as a better film might have been able to do. I worry the film was over-thought a bit, its sharper edges shaved down in order to craft something in keeping with a more mainstream message.
The film didn’t need the torture porn of a Zero Dark Thirty, but it did need a more sophisticated, cinematic way of showing the menace of the interrogators. Shot mostly in a single room, the camera rarely makes the audience feel as emotionally connected with Bahari as it could, the repetition of circumstance dulling in part the reaction to the events.
Early on in the film there are some interesting cinematic flourishes from Stewart, including shots of Bahari walking down the street as the buildings behind him are transformed with stock imagery. There’s also some incorporation of what appears to be actual footage Bahari shot on the streets of Tehran, and it integrates nicely with the scenes that Stewart recreates.
There’s also a beautiful scene where Bahari’s driver take a moment to pray on the side of the road. We’ve seen this character act, for lack of an appropriate word, as “Western” – he’s dynamic, rebelling against the regime, spouting indications of his dissatisfaction with the current order. Yet he is the one character that we see make an overtly “religious” gesture, no doubt a way of Stewart and his collaborators to subtly undermine some prejudices about the role of religion and culture, especially against the prevailing imagery that comes out of that region.
Beside these brief and welcome moments, there’s little to distinguish the direction, save for some accomplished performances by the central characters. The film goes right down the middle when it comes to its construction as well, with a few flashbacks and use of secondary characters to make overt what may have been better to leave a bit more opaque or poetic.
It’s fair to say Rosewater is a disappointment, but that’s because I believe from this team we could have got a film that’s truly extraordinary, one that plumbed the depths of the horror and the surreal comedy in a more biting, more memorable way. This would have been more akin to the best that Stewart and his team do on his show, and instead we seem to get a slightly watered down version of what’s clearly an engaging and important narrative.
The core of this story does remain quite compelling, and Stewart’s passion for the project comes out in almost every frame of film. While not quite the masterpiece I was perhaps unfairly hoping for, this directorial debut from one of the great comedic minds of this era is still something well worth seeking out, despite it not being the bleak, hard-hitting and darkly comic work I was hoping for from this team.