Leave it to this generation’s most respected political and media satirist, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, to fashion a debut film that manages to be both humorous and a very serious examination of the grim realities Iranians face under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Adapted by Stewart from Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir (Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival), Rosewater stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari, a Newsweek reporter who returns to his homeland in 2009 to cover the Iranian presidential election. After interviewing supporters of Ahmadinejad’s challenger and capturing video footage of large protests against the results of the election, Bahari is taken into custody by Iranian authorities and kept in solitary confinement for months. During that time, he is interrogated by officials who are convinced he is working as a spy -- they use as proof an appearance Bahari made on The Daily Show in which he was interviewed by Jason Jones, who was playing the program’s “Senior Espionage Correspondent.” As his captors attempt to break him psychologically, Bahari clings to memories of his strong-willed father, who was also held captive by a previous regime, as well as the loving sister who first introduced him to Western cinema and music.
On paper, Rosewater sounds like high-fiber filmmaking. After all, asking people to watch the torture of an innocent man sounds like the exact opposite of a good time at the movies. But Stewart is a skilled entertainer, one understands how to satisfy an audience while still accomplishing what he set out to do. He was a highly regarded standup comic before taking over The Daily Show and turning it into the institution it is today, and he peppers Rosewater with laughs that acknowledge the Orwellian ridiculousness of Bahari’s situation without ever diminishing its severity.
There’s a sequence late in the picture in which an exhausted Bahari turns the tables on his brutal interrogator by titillating him with made-up stories about exotic massage parlors. This scene best exemplifies the first-time director’s ability to maintain a singular tone, and offers proof that, if he chooses to continue his career as a moviemaker, Stewart could easily develop a unique voice in the history of comedy cinema.
Stewart shows a facility for various aspects of the filmmaking process here. He elicits strong performances from all of his actors, particularly Bernal: He’s in practically every scene, and his expressive eyes make such an impression in the first act that it still feels like we can see them when he spends long periods of time wearing a blindfold. Stewart also gets great work from cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; together, they keep the picture from ever growing visually static, which is impressive since the majority of the action at the prison takes place in either the interrogation room or Bahari’s cell.
This is an auspicious debut that stands as one of the most humanistic cinematic statements of the post-9/11 era. Since The Daily Show’s comedy typically boils down to exposing how the weak are screwed over by the powerful, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Stewart has made a movie about the ability of the individual to stand up to oppression. Rosewater is inarguably the greatest movie ever directed by a late-night talk-show host -- and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, unless Stewart decides to make another one.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: R
- Review: Leave it to this generation’s most respected political and media satirist, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, to fashion a debut film that manages to be both humorous and a very serious examination of the grim realities Iranians face under President Mahmoud… (more)