Jon Stewart is, by all accounts, a smart guy. In interviews, he comes across as not just funny, but also thoughtful, articulate, and insightful. He co-wrote two astute and breathlessly funny books with his Daily Show staff, and before that, an even better collection of witty short pieces that rivals the best of Woody Allen and S.J. Perlman. And he hosts one of the savviest and most reliably brainy satires in television history, a show which, to a great extent, established the model of using both humor and context to create “explainer” commentary (a style extended by everyone from Rachel Maddow to Stewart’s former colleague John Oliver). And though such commentary often explicates and educates, we rarely get the sense that Stewart is talking down to us — which is why it’s such a disappointment that Rosewater, his debut film as a writer/director, is so often pitched and played like a carefully dumbed-down TV movie.
Stewart famously took a summer off from The Daily Show to tell this story, out of a sense of obligation and responsibility for the part he plays in it. Maziar Bahari was covering the 2009 Iranian election — and the subsequent protests concerning its validity — for Newsweek when he appeared in a taped Daily Show segment, in which correspondent Jason Jones jokingly called him a spy. The Iranian authorities, not known for their appreciation of satire, imprisoned Bahari in solitary confinement for 118 days, subjecting him to daily interrogations where he was pressed for details about the supposed collusion between Western media and anti-Iranian intelligence.
It’s an important story, and Stewart’s personal passion for telling it is not only palpable and admirable, but frequently translates into emotional, engaging cinema. The scenes that work — and there are many — render the overall unevenness of the production all the more bewildering. There are moments of real power here, of well-articulated fury and moral ambiguity, surrounded by choices that are downright puzzling.
Example: Bahari’s backstory is told in voice-over as he’s out for a walk in the city. But we can’t just have the words; Stewart projects images from Bahari’s past, from the world at large, even from the movies he loves over the windows and gates of the storefronts he passes, nudging the aesthetic out of narrative and into music video (or, perhaps, After Effects demo reel). And that’s not the only way the narration is undercut — describing his father’s imprisonment, Bahari says, “He gave them noting,” which is then followed by his father whispering, “I gave them nothing.” “He never broke,” Bahari continues. “I never broke,” his father confirms. It’s a small moment, but the effect is jarring; you usually have to go to a preschool to see this much hand-holding.
Later, as Bahari describes the post-election protests, he explains how social media played a role in the dissemination of information. But he can’t just tell us about it and show us the protests; the film superimposes animated hashtags over the events, which then rise out of the streets and up to the heavens, where they form a big hashtag word cloud, accompanied by inspirational music. It is, to put it politely, a bit much.
Such flourishes — along with the decision to open the film with both a childhood flashback and a bit of subtitled poetry — play like a filmmaker trying too hard, assuring us that he’s making a real movie here, though they have precisely the opposite effect. He proves his skill elsewhere, in far less obvious ways. Stewart’s style is mellow and (these instances aside) unobtrusive, and he’s got a fine eye for cinematic composition (there’s a great image of Bahari’s driver praying on the side of the highway while the journalist waits patiently). He also shows a sure hand for a kind of simple magic realism in the scenes where Bahari offsets his imprisoned loneliness by imagining conversations with his father and sister.
And the dialogue scenes are natural, unforced, and lived-in — so much so that it’s tempting to ignore the fact that almost all of them are in English. Yes, this is another one of those movies where somehow no one speaks to each other in their native tongue, although “native tongue” is a bit of a tricky concept here, since Iran-born Bahari is played by Mexico-born Gael García Bernal, his chief antagonist by Denmark-born Kim Bodnia. Both the language and casting decisions were presumably made to keep from scaring away gun-shy audiences, but who’re we kidding? It’s not like a lack of subtitles and the hunk from Y Tu Mama Tambien are going to make Rosewater a crossover box office smash. If anything, they sacrifice credibility in the eyes of the art-house audience that’s most likely to embrace the picture.
This is not to take anything from the performances of Bernal (who’s utterly convincing, and whose work is particularly impressive considering how much of it is done behind a blindfold) and Bodnia. In fact, the picture is at its best in the second half, when it focuses on their interrogations and becomes a two-handed mind game of rapidly increasing stakes. Here, Stewart knows when to keep the scenes simple, when to build and release tension, and when to offset the humidity with a well-chosen bit of humor (some of it, unsurprisingly, New Jersey-based).
One of the most effective early moments in Rosewater finds Bahari being chastised for the timidity of his reporting. “You have a red button,” he’s told, referencing the record button on his video camera, “and you choose not to use it.” The message of that scene, regarding the understandable yet counterproductive instinct to play it safe, could easily apply to the picture as well; Stewart’s earnestness and intentions are admirable, particularly as he could have made his directorial debut with, say, a political comedy of the Wag the Dog ilk rather than something so weighty and serious. He took a commendable risk, and were Rosewater the debut picture from an up-and-comer we’d never heard of, I don’t doubt I’d have cut it a bit more slack. On the other hand, I’m not sure that even a no-name first-timer would have presumed an audience needed this story spoonfed quite to the degree that Rosewater does.
Rosewater is out Friday.