On June 11, 2009, journalist Maziar Bahari was in Tehran, covering the Iranian presidential election that pitted incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadnejad against more progressive candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Despite allegations of fraud and corruption, Ahmadnejad was hailed the winner, getting 62 percent of the vote. This sent Mousavi's base of supporters into a fury, producing violent protests that brought Iran's steep internal divide to national attention. Bahari, a native of Iran who'd immigrated to London, filmed the aftermath and began filing reports for Newsweek. He was imprisoned for his efforts, spending more than 100 days being interrogated by the secret police.
Rosewater dramatizes Bahari's story through a series of ideological crossroads that challenges the character's sense of identity. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the embattled reporter, the film takes aim at the contradictions inherent in a government founded on isolationism and fundamentalism. It sounds like heavy-duty material on paper but feels quite weightless in the hands of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, making his debut as a film director and screenwriter. This can be attributed to the mishmash of tones that define nearly every scene.
Bahari was incarcerated for many reasons, according to his captor, a blunt-force weapon of the Iranian government named Rosewater (Kim Bodina). Treachery, indecency and espionage are mentioned often, but it's the last of the three that Stewart gives the most exposure. Early in the film, Bahari sits down with a Daily Show correspondent for one of the program's standard satirical interviews, in which he's labeled a spy, a bit of subversive comedy that Rosewater later takes as a confession. As a stand-in for Iran's crippling regime, the interrogator is portrayed as a culturally hollow, sexually repressed brute who can't even fathom a sense of humor.
Through Rosewater's character, we get a simplistic understanding of Iran's long history of ideological manipulation, which is contrasted with Bahari's more complicated relationship with the country of his birth. During his detainment, the journalist is visited by the ghosts of his father and sister, both activists who spent years in prison being tortured. Stewart addresses the legacy of emotional suppression through this family lineage of political prisoners, painting the phantasms as strong enough to withstand the pressure and Bahari as their weak and disappointing stand-in. Meant to provide subtext to the character, this motif only produces passive-aggressive ridicule for a man who can't withstand a bit of yelling and gut punches.
Rosewater is neither subversive nor damning in its picture of blind faith, not to mention a completely inert representation of the political-film genre. Each scene exists in a stagnant purgatory between satire and drama, never having the courage to choose one or the other. Aside from a few flashes of magical realism, Bahari's story is aesthetically pedestrian, concerned more with the internal struggle of desperate men trying to reclaim the status quo of their lives.
Much will be made of the film's two central performances, and each has its scenery-chewing moment in the sun. But the film as a whole doesn't understand how to cinematically infer the subtext of the characters' struggles, content to literalize conflict and resolution through dialogue. This failure lies entirely on Stewart's shoulders; he depicts these verbal confrontations in a standard way that evokes something one might find on a cable-access channel. His ambition to step away from the show host's desk and into the director's chair is admirable, but the end result haphazardly addresses too many important ideas to be deemed successful.
Rosewater—which opens Friday, Nov. 14—attempts to blur the line between genres, impressions and versions of the truth. Despite these intentions, the film lacks the necessary tension and vibrancy for any of these ideas to take root in any discernible way.