Rosewater is the directorial debut of Jon Stewart, the longtime host of The Daily Show. Stewart tells the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who worked for Newsweek when he was jailed and tortured by the Iranian government during the country’s 2009 election protests. He was held for 118 days, accused of being a spy.
The film is well constructed and covers a lot of ground. From the politics of an election scandal to a man longing to see his pregnant wife once again, to the history of that man’s father and family. Stories are woven throughout, and you’ll care about all of them.
Trying to make a case against him, the Iranian government confronted Bahari with the evidence, trying to force his confession. One piece of evidence used against him was an interview by The Daily Show in which correspondent Jason Jones jokingly calls him a spy. The government “specialist” (his torturer) turns out to be as humourless as the government that arrested him.
The portrayal of Bahari’s torture is refreshingly real. It’s not the over-the-top torture porn seen in TV shows like “24,” or in action movies. There’s no needles pushed under fingernails, fingers and toes chopped off or heads stuck in vices. The usual intent behind graphic torture in films is to make the audience almost as uncomfortable as the victim, but Stewart took a risk with this film and didn’t turn the screws, as it were. As a result, the audience is no less uncomfortable, and Bahari’s pain, both physical and psychological, is no less real during the scenes where his torturer is screaming in his ear, beating him or conducting a mock execution.
The film is also laced with humour and well-used irony – not surprising to anyone who knows Stewart’s work, but maybe a relief to those who thought his first foray into directing might be too serious a departure. Stewart is such a master of levity that he could make an audience laugh at anything, though – no matter how serious or bleak the situation.
That’s not to say that serious matters aren’t handled well, though. The film also manages storytelling on a macro scale, explaining how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole the 2009 election and how people felt after he did so. Much of this storytelling takes place through the lens of Bahari himself, who is in Iran in the first place to cover the election.
The film is more than Bahari and the election’s story, though. It’s also a beautiful picture of the people of Iran. One of Stewart’s motifs in The Daily Show’s Iran segments is the humanization of the Iranian people, meant to show how similar their values and lifestyle are to those in Western nations. That is certainly something that is carried over into Rosewater. While the characters have political and religious beliefs that are not relatable to many in a Western audience, there is an immediate comfort with everyone who appears on screen – well, at least those we’re meant to be comfortable with.
With Stewart soon leaving The Daily Show, let’s hope his next line of work has him producing more work of the same high caliber as Rosewater.