Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

"A solid, and certainly heartfelt effort."

Rosewater sees satirical news series The Daily Show host Jon Stewart dramatising an Iranian-set story with which he has long been deeply intertwined. The subject, Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, was interviewed in 2009 by The Daily Show’s Jason Jones as part of that show’s ongoing attempts to demystify “Axis of Evil” club member Iran. Stewart has stated that, given Bahari was interned in Iran shortly after that interview by the authorities, he felt a sense of responsibility when it came to his fate. Such passion shines through in this debut (based on Bahari's book Then They Came For Me), which benefits from a solid main cast and some neat humour, even if it can’t seem to always settle down stylistically.

At the heart of the story is London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (another charismatic turn from Mexican actor Gael García Bernal). Bahari, when we first meet him, is about to take up a new assignment: return to his homeland of Iran to report for the BBC on the 2009 Iranian elections. These are elections which might see the Green, liberal candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi make a real breakthrough against conservative establishment opponent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given his Iranian heritage, it is also a chance for Bahari to visit his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who still resides in Tehran.

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As played by Bernal, Bahari is immediately likeable, cosmopolitan, and blessed with a self-deprecating and cynical sense of humour. He is also quick to head off attempts to pigeonhole Iranians - in one scene we see him contradicting the derisive comments of one technician whilst they watch a video of a conservative Ahmadinejad youth supporter by reminding him that the young man, despite his mouthing of state slogans, is western educated as opposed to some cradle-to-the-grave puppet. He also has a pregnant wife (Claire Foy) whom he will be leaving behind. She’s a little nervous that he is heading off to such a hotspot at this time in their married life. It turns out her fears are not without foundation.

Back in Iran, we see Bahari quickly intoxicated by the chance to grab a great scoop, and by the sense of real change on the streets, as he mixes with the mostly young Mousavi Green movement supporters and sees the various ways they have subverted the regime’s attempts at media control; one group takes him to a roof packed with concealed satellite dishes like some kind of briar patch. Stewart even works in a humorous recreation of the aforementioned Daily Show interview, with Jason Jones playing himself as he simultaneously plays an exaggerated asshole version of himself. ?But Bahari finds himself compelled to shoot footage of the unrest and violent state reaction on the streets of Tehran following what many believe to be a vote result rigged against Mousavi, eventually sending footage of the protests back to the BBC. The morning after filing this material, he is arrested by the Revolutionary Guard on a charge of treason and incarcerated in Evin prison. There, he and his interrogator,who is known only as Rosewater (an excellent turn from The Bridge’s Kim Bodnia), engage in a battle of wills for 118 days.

Despite the dark subject matter, Stewart mixes in a surprising amount of laughs into the material, most of them resting on Bernal’s assured delivery. When first confronted about his stash of western media in his mother’s house by Rosewater, Bahari is faced with having to explain in short order why Pasolini’s Teorem, The Sopranos and an Empire Magazine cover with a revealing shot of Megan Fox are not ‘pornos’. Bahari argues vigorously against these lazy categorisations one by one, though ultimately feels he must admit that the magazine cover is a tough call. When Rosewater steps up, his attempts to break Bahari into writing and recording a confession that he is part of a western media conspiracy, Bahari fights back by spinning him a ludicrous tale of New Jersey’s exotic massage parlours that had him hooked like it was heroin, with Rosewater struggling to hide his interest in this sinful delight that his conservative home state denies him.

With its attempt to give various elements of the Green and Conservative movements screen time, Rosewater feels of a piece with Stewart’s attempts via his news show to project a more complex picture of contemporary Iran to US audiences numbed by Fox News. Admirable to be sure, but Stewart’s film doesn’t seem to always trust the audience. There is a fair amount of on-the-nose dialogue, and not all the visual flourishes and effects are used coherently, leaving the film feeling erratically styled. For example, Stewart is yet another director who feels the needs to show tweets flying the air to effect change, something that really rubs me up the wrong way. Also, sequences where clips of news anchors collapse into a giant mosaic in order to visually represent the media pressure to free Bahari feel like a prime example of unnecessary and unsubtle exposition, as well as a technique that risks draining the tension and intimacy from the last third of the film where Bahari is supposed to be cut off. This device and others never really add up to anything other than a distraction from the heart of the story.

Though it doesn’t handle the shifts in narrative devices as well as the shifts in tone, Stewart’s debut is nevertheless a solid, and certainly heartfelt effort, at putting this topical and involving story on screen.

Reviewed on: 18 Oct 2014
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The story of Maziar Bahari, the journalist who was detained for 188 days in Iran.
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Director: Jon Stewart

Writer: Jon Stewart, Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy

Starring: Gael García Bernal, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Jason Jones, Andrew Gower, Haluk Bilginer, Nasser Faris, Nazanin Nour, Numan Acar, Arian Moayed, Amir El-Masry, Zarif Kabier, Arash Mokhtar

Year: 2014

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: US

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