Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 8, 2015)
Given his background, one might expect Jon Stewart’s cinematic debut as a director to provide a sharp political satire. Instead, Stewart went the dramatic route with 2014’s Rosewater, a tale that covers events related to the 2009 elections in Iran.
Born in Tehran, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) makes a career as a journalist in west. He returns to his homeland to cover the aforementioned 2009 Iranian elections, but this doesn’t go well for him.
Authorities apprehend Bahari and accuse him of espionage. Bahari undergoes long-term interrogation under the authority of a man he knows as “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia). We follow Bahari’s experiences and the journey he takes during this period.
At the start of this review, I noted that Stewart went down a path one wouldn’t expect with Rosewater, as it eschews his signature style of political satire – mostly. One shouldn’t mistake Rosewater for a humorless movie, as Stewart interjects levity on occasion.
However, Stewart mostly plays things straight – very, very straight, and probably too straight. Because of this, Rosewater works more as a lesson in civic activism and encouragement than an actual dramatic narrative.
Take the movie’s first act, for example. Rosewater informs us and involves us in matters related to the 2009 elections and the protests that followed. Clearly, the film needs some of this material, as Stewart can’t assume the audience will already understand the circumstances, especially as they relate to Bahari himself.
However, Rosewater really takes a sluggish path, as it spends far too much time on background material. We get more than 35 minutes into the story before Bahari gets imprisoned, and Rosewater doesn’t use those 35 minutes all that well. I suspect Stewart could have related all the necessary information in half the time and the movie would’ve been tighter and better paced if he had.
Once Bahari enters prison, Rosewater doesn’t become much stronger. While I don’t want to trivialize the experiences on display here, they rarely convey the misery through which Bahari lived. Oh, occasional scenes give us a feel for his state, but those occur infrequently.
Instead, Rosewater makes weeks of torture and solitary confinement seem… not that bad. We get little sense of how beaten down Bahari would’ve felt, as he rarely seems all that off-kilter in physical or mental ways.
Stewart simply appears to lack the heart to give Rosewater the grit and intensity it needs. Instead, it feels like Stewart wants to give us the eighth grade Civics class version of events. Rosewater has just enough darkness to offer some sense of reality, but it never goes to a place that creates a truly harrowing experience.
Perhaps Stewart should’ve gone the expected route and treated the material in a satirical way. When Rosewater indulges comedy – such as with Bahari’s description of New Jersey as a form of pleasure paradise – it becomes more interesting. If Stewart doesn’t want to depict the horror of Bahari’s situation, maybe he should’ve mocked the authorities and their idiocy.
Instead, Rosewater becomes an earnest little lesson without much impact. I’m not sure how a movie about a man’s unjust imprisonment by a corrupt regime can seem so soft and bland, but Rosewater comes across that way.