In making Rosewater, American comedy titan Jon Stewart sought to accomplish two things. On the one hand, his debut as a writer-director is a mature, brilliantly acted account of journalistic integrity and human fortitude.
It represents a compelling break from Stewart’s usual shtick on his nightly Comedy Central blitzkrieg, The Daily Show, a conscience-of-the-nation routine that largely involves withering, often exasperated critiques, of the idiocy that now passes for (mostly) conservative political discourse across the Atlantic.
Equally, this is drama as the gentlest of apologies, with the message chiefly directed at its real-life central figure. Stewart's reasoning is born not of responsibility but of an indirect personal connection to the fate of one man thousands of miles away.
Of the many facets that collude to create The Daily Show, the correspondent interviews are perhaps the most subversive. Unleashing any one of Stewart’s pompous and straight-faced sidekicks into staged exchanges with politicians, leaders and makers of the news, these are invariably absurd, slyly amusing instead of obviously hysterical. That the likes of Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver should have once made their comedy bones in this corps of intrepid funnymen speaks to the relentless quality of Stewart’s supporting acts.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone is in on the joke.
When London-based Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari spoke with Daily Show correspondent Jason Jones in June 2009, their meeting was clearly preposterous. Both men were in Tehran to cover Iran’s presidential election and Jones, dressed like an American special forces operator, grilled a game Bahari on, amongst other things, the best method for conducting espionage inside the country. Playing along, Bahari calmly answered Jones’s ridiculous questions with only the smallest twinkle in his eye.
Later, in the wake of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s specious victory at the polls, as riots and disorder erupted across Persia, Bahari recorded the explosion of what its proponents would quickly label the ‘Green Revolution’, broadcasting important footage to the world. His work captured the regime’s murderous response to this wave of disenchantment and thus he came to the attention of the hysterically paranoid internal security services.
Already piqued at those inconvenient and unambiguous images, the authorities claimed that Bahari was a spy and worse: a Zionist puppet. They based their assertion, incredibly, on his Daily Show appearance. He was promptly arrested, then subjected to 118 days of solitary confinement and sustained, nonsensical interrogation. Assuming that they were genuine in their belief, it only goes to show that tyranny has little time for satire.
Drawn to his own inadvertent involvement in the matter, Stewart resolved to dramatise Bahari’s ordeal. The result is intriguing because it winds an unpredictable path; it switches moods at unexpected moments, undermining notions of Stewart’s directorial ambitions.
In the lead role, the famously Mexican Gael García Bernal — an excellent actor, whatever the part — throws off his matinee idol charisma to portray Bahari as a bookish, serious reporter who is faintly arrogant, yet pragmatic enough to adjust to new penal surroundings rather than buck against the system for the sake of a principle. It is a nuanced performance, a testament to the trust Bernal has in a director who eschews violence and torture for something more low-key, more subtle. Where there might be misery there is a sliver of hope; when cruelty might overwhelm the story, humanity prevails. Stewart wishes to convey the truth, not sensationalism. Even Bahari’s arrest is relatively polite.
In delivering such a tone, Stewart places much of his faith in the strange dynamic that develops between Bahari and his interrogator, Javadi (The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia), an unworldly middle-ranking official — dressed, badly, in the sober Ahmadinejad uniform of open-necked shirt and sport coat — whose only remarkable trait is the fragrant rosewater that he sprays on his person.
The older man burbles wild accusations and misshapen notions of the West, a place he does not comprehend. Soon enough, it is he, not his prisoner, who appears desperate and lost.
Bodnia carries an almost tangible whiff of insecurity — professional, intellectual, sexual — beneath his musk. With international media pressure mounting, he is under orders to produce results; he seems eager for information, any information, to pass upstairs. That fact is soon discerned by Bahari and, at this juncture, Stewart’s recognisable leanings come to the fore, imbuing an otherwise serious picture with a dash of charming irreverence that cannot fail to delight. As Javadi listens in awed silence, eyes popping, to his prisoner’s spurious accounts of carnal escapades, the comedian’s cheeky sense of farce peeks out from beneath the blindfold.
Indeed, he even has room to invoke the odd fantastical wrinkle. Bahari enjoys meaningful conversations with the ghosts of his communist father and sister, a touching distraction from his isolation. Late on, he prances around his cell in time with an arrangement heard only by him. These unexpected flourishes define Rosewater as a film possessing higher aspirations beyond its worthy visage.
An edited version of this article was first published here.