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- Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Journalist Maziar Bahari in Rosewater
Rosewater tells the story of a man imprisoned for being a spy. SPOILER ALERT: He eventually gets released. END SPOILER ALERT.
For those of you that opted not to read the spoiler sentence, here's what I can tell you. The film is the first written and directed by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart was drawn to the true story in part because his show factored into the events. Despite a few stylistic flourishes, the production is an earnest and straightforward account of what happened, with moments of naturalistic humor based on some major miscommunication. The film is interesting, but lacks urgency. It's a promising first effort for Stewart, but far from must-see status.
For those of you that read the spoiler, I can tell you that part of the reason for the lack of urgency is that we know that the prisoner was released and made it home, where he wrote a book about his ordeal. Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal from Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries and No), a stringer for Newsweek, is sent to Tehran to cover the 2009 presidential elections.
While there, he is interviewed by one of the comic journalists for The Daily Show. The segment they record includes references to spying that are clearly nonsense — if you understand the show's approach to humor.
When outraged Iranians take to the streets following a suspiciously lopsided election, Bahari films what he sees and gets arrested soon after. The government accuses him of being a spy and demands he sign a confession. His chief interrogator is a man Bahari dubs Rosewater, based on the scent he wears. Rosewater (Kim Bodnia) presents the government's evidence against Bahari, which includes The Daily Show interview with the spy references. Turns out the interrogator is not one of the people that understands the show's approach to humor.
Rosewater is an interesting character. He uses the internet to research his captive, but lacks the cultural background to be able to correctly interpret what he finds. At one point he challenges Bahari over his relationship with Anton Chekov after seeing the writer's name on Bahari's Facebook page.
I don't want to minimize the physical and emotional pain suffered by Bahari. That said, most of us have seen movies about prisoners and harsh prison guards or interrogators before and, aside from the internet wrinkle, Rosewater doesn't add anything new. There's a sense that Jon Stewart is presenting the story in part to atone for the inadvertent part his show played in the proceedings. He adds a few bits of style — Bahari walks through town while images of his thoughts appear in storefront windows and Bahari talks with the ghost of his father while imprisoned — but mostly plays it straight.
Rosewater is a well-intentioned minor film about a major event in one man's life. I tried to stay invested in it, but my thoughts kept drifting to Abdul-Rahman, the Indianapolis man captured by Islamic militants while trying to help Syrian refugees. When I saw Rosewater last week, there was still hope he would be released. A few days later the militants posted footage of his severed head. The fact-based story in the theater pales in comparison to the actions of today's monsters.