Political Satirist Jon Stewart Makes A Mediocre Directorial Debut With Rosewater.
Director: Jon Stewart.
Writer: Jon Stewart (screenplay); Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy (book).
Cast: Gael García Bernal.
Playing At: Angelika Film Center (Dallas and Plano).
Unless you've done some hard time and have your own perspective on the matter, one way to get a semblance of what goes on in prison is to watch a movie about it.
Such films — be they feature narratives or documentaries — have long given us a peak inside of this world, and they've shown the horrors that guilty and innocent prisoners alike may face. What have we learned? Well, that there's some jarring psychological and physical abuse that goes on inside of these places. And unless you're the kind of guy who can kick everyone else's ass in the room, it's going to be one long and painful journey in there. It's no joking matter: Even the comedies that have been set in prison have featured the darker themes, and while a few of those managed to muster a good laugh in the process, but the point still gets across.
Life in prison, clearly, is awful.
And yet, for whatever reason, the actor, comedian and multi-hyphenate Jon Stewart, who is best known as a political satirist and the host of The Daily Show, decided that his directorial debut should remind us of this fact. Unfortunately, his based-on-a-true-story, behind-bars Rosewater movie is mostly weak, uninspiring and tame. Considering the source, that's a damn shame.
Adapted from the memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and Survival, the chief character in Rosewater is the book's author himself, the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari. Both the book and the film center around his experiences in being detained and interrogated for over 100 days at the Evin Prison in Iran in 2009. Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries) is tasked with playing that lead role.
The film opens cold: Bahari is being escorted to jail from his childhood home. We don't know what's going on at the moment or who the guys taking him in are, but we learn soon enough that he was arrested for filming (and airing) some police brutality footage taken during a riot right after the widely disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election. Oh, and for allegedly being a spy, too.
Of course, Bahari was no spy at all. But the Iranian government, confusing a satiric interview Bahari gave with an American journalist (a correspondent from The Daily Show in real life, although that's never mentioned outright here), doesn't quite understand the joke. That, coupled with the fact that Bahari provided other journalists with a list of sources who'd speak with them, landed Bahari 118 days in jail. And within that stretch, he's forced to give a false confession to espionage as the Iranians try to further squeeze information out of him that he doesn't have.
It's compelling material to work with — especially considering the fact that Bahari is also overcome with thoughts of his pregnant wife back in London, who is waiting for his return. Stewart, who also wrote the screenplay, could've used this to his advantage to show Bahari's emotional struggle (he wants to see his unborn child grow up) or his stubborn ability to suffer through his punishment (because the memories of his wife are keeping his broken spirit alive). But, instead, Stewart puts the wife on the back burner only to bring her back into the picture at unevenly paced times. It's a device meant to tug at our emotions, but it doesn't quite work. Love and family are two entities that will really move an audience, and they could've been used effectively here. Instead, they end up as the film pacing's Achilles heel, only interrupting the other parts once those finally begin to register with the audience.
Also ineffective? Rosewater's official synopsis says this film's about Bahari’s “brutal interrogation” during his stay at Prison Inn. Now, if that means a few punches to the head — fewer than I got in grade school, for whatever that's worth — then, yes, he was brutally interrogated. If that means being moderately yelled at while blindfolded, then yes, call it brutal. Granted, I didn't read Bahari’s book, so I don't know of the true terrors he faced. But what Rosewater shows is a man who got off lighter than most detainees who headline news stories every year.
Want real squeamish prison brutality? Steve McQueen presented shock and terror in spades with his excellent but mentally bruising feature debut, Hunger. In Rosewater, Stewart presents imprisonment most as an annoyance. Throughout Bahari's stay, he always looks clean, with his facial hair neatly trimmed. We're never really overly concerned for Bahari's safety; we're just waiting for his term to end.
Stewart deserves some credit here for attempting to make good on the fact that his own actions played a role in interrupting Bahari's life, as it was indeed Bahari's The Daily Show appearance that in part landed him in jail. But, in many ways, this apology feels incomplete: Whereas Rosewater could've played into the darker atrocities of what Bahari suffered, this film mostly comes off as a lighthearted retelling.
In his first go as a director, Stewart fails to accurate portray the gravity of the story he's sharing. And, in turn, so does his audience.