At the end of 2014, American magazine The Atlantic wrote an article titled “The Trouble With Befriending the Subject of Your Biopic”, focusing on Angelina Jolie and the poor critical reception given to her film Unbroken. The piece asked, “Close relationships between artists and real-life heroes bring credibility, but is it really worth the loss in creative control?”
Unfortunately for Jon Stewart, this question also applies to Rosewater, his directorial debut. Based on the memoir Then They Came for Me, written by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, the film tells the story of Bahari (Gael García Bernal), at the time a Newsweek reporter, who travels to Tehran to cover the controversial 2009 presidential election, leaving his pregnant fiancée (Claire Foy) behind.
After being involved in a satirical interview with a correspondent from Stewart’s The Daily Show (where the connection between Bahari and Stewart becomes more obvious to the audience) and capturing incriminating video footage of civil unrest and government brutality. Soon accusations of spying and treason against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration lead to Bahari’s capture, trapped for 118 days in an Iranian prison. Here he meets his prison head (Haluk Bilginer) and his interrogator (Kim Bodnia), who he recognizes when blindfolded due to his fragrance of “rosewater”.
Stewart, who also adapted the screenplay, demonstrates a dedication to the story, much alike Jolie’s commitment to Unbroken. Bahari is portrayed as almost overly infallible and is, at times, too central to the story to appreciate. Though the story is indeed interesting in its own right, Rosewater isn’t emotionally satisfying – nor provides enough tension – to keep audience interest sustained. Unfortunately, the narration throughout becomes monotonous and makes the film all the more stagnant.
Bernal, a Mexican-born actor who has played a number of ethnicities in his time, is excellent in the role of Bahari, though it is obvious that the script limits his characterization. Specifically, Bernal shines in the latter half of the film, where the intense and claustrophobic prison scenes allow him to deviate more from the screenplay. Bodnia, Bilginer and Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Bahari’s mother, are solid in their respective roles.
Though the story is dictated by real-life events, the plot structured here isn’t complex or original enough in the slightest. However, that is not the ultimate point of the film. Rather, Rosewater intrigues with its use of real footage to depict what is happening in Iran. Through this story of captivity, what shines is a tale of courage in a time of corruption and political conflict in the Middle East. It is simply unfortunate that Stewart’s intention on making the story more relatable includes a number of humorous moments, which undermine the seriousness of the narrative.
Rosewater lacks in lots of ways. There isn’t significant focus on Iran’s main issues to give the average viewer an understanding of why Bahari’s “crimes” were exponentially worse at this time and there isn’t nearly enough abuse, as recorded in Bahari’s book. Nevertheless, the film manages to succeed because of what it stands for – it stands with the journalists around the world who have been killed or remain behind bars, and for that, it is worthy of praise.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10
Originally published on The Reel Word, February 12, 2015.
Watch the trailer for Rosewater below: