Interrogations veer into absurd territory.
Jon Stewart's big-screen acting work has been spotty, but The Daily Show host's debut as a film director is a much more auspicious occasion. As the writer, director and producer of the film adaptation of Maziar Bahari's book Then They Came for Me, the comedian proves his dramatic chops.
Even a casual viewer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart can recognize the seriousness of the funnyman's barbs as he skewers all that's fatuous and venal in today's politics. Rosewater answers the question of whether he's able to transform his sobering concerns into engaging dramatic fodder. The film is a finely crafted account of Newsweek journalist Bahari's 2009 detention in an Iranian prison. It emphasizes humanity over headlines, and freedom of speech over repression of contrary thought.
When Bahari (movingly played by Mexican national Gael García Bernal), an Iranian journalist living in England, headed to Tehran to cover the 2009 election that pitted Mir-Hossein Mousavi against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he thought he would be away from his pregnant wife for only a short while. Once on the ground, Bahari finds a driver (Dimitri Leonidas), conducts interviews with both sides of the campaign, visits Dish University (a hidden rooftop array of satellite dishes that disseminates news otherwise forbidden), and sits for a silly interview with Jason Jones of The Daily Show, who calls him an American spy (perhaps lending credence to the idea that this is Stewart's story to tell). While asleep in the home of his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo), Iranian police conduct a raid, finding further evidence of his treachery: so-called pornographic DVDs of The Sopranos and a magazine with Megan Fox on the cover. (Bahari humorously concedes that the Fox image looks a bit pornographic.)
Bahari's prison stay is remarkable more for its tedium than its ferocity. He is interviewed daily while blindfolded by a functionary he nicknames Rosewater for the scent of his cologne. The questions veer into the absurd, and as the process goes along we get a sense of this interrogator, whose superiors are unhappy with his inability to elicit secrets. Bahari is also haunted by memories of his father and sister, who were both detained in the shah's prisons.
Once incarcerated, Bahari's experience becomes an interior journey that's difficult to render cinematically. Stewart is to be commended for not tarting up the story with action-packed events. A moment in which Bernal shadow-dances in captivity to Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" should be promoted as music video of the year. But overall, Rosewater, along with The Daily Show, shows that freedom of the press has no greater champion than Stewart.