Written and directed by Jon Stewart
Open Roads Films, 103 minutes, R (language, violence, suggestiveness)
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A lot of my liberal friends ask me why I oppose Obama's treaty with Iran. I tell them that Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that deserves global ostracism, not its stamp of legitimacy. But don't take my word for it; ask Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, who spent 118 days of torture, abuse, and deprivation in Iranian jails. Lucky for him he was a foreign national and a Newsweek correspondent, or he would have simply disappeared.
Bahari's Then They Came for Me is harrowing reading and if you don't want to read it, check out Jon Stewart's directorial debut film based upon Bahari's memoir. It is shot in documentary-meets-biography style. We watch as happy-go-lucky Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) lands in Tehran and visits his mother, then proceeds to do what good journalists do: seek out sources. He was in Tehran to report upon the protests surrounding the 2009 election-one blatantly stolen from the opposition so that brutal Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—the Persian Putin--could stay in power and do the mullahs' bidding. Bahari reported on the rumors, filmed the crackdown, and interviewed dissidents—the stuff journalists do. For this he was jailed as a spy and Zionist tool. We watch the effort to breakdown Bahari for propaganda purposes, mostly by an interrogator unsuccessfully playing the "good cop" role before turning Bahari over to the rough treatment boys. The first inquisitor is the film's titular Rosewater (Kim Bodnia); Bahari is always blindfolded and comes to identify his tormentor by scent long before he sees his face.
The prison scenes are predictably horrifying, especially in conveying a sense of isolation, as Bahari spent most of his time in solitary confinement. But Stewart throws in two twists—Bahari's imagined conversations with his father, who was imprisoned by the Shah; and with his sister, who ran afoul of Khomeini. The second twist is subtler and ultimately more powerful: Bahari's realization that his captors are both fascinated by the West and are as frightened by him as he is of them. That revelation was ultimately Bahari's soul- and mind-saving grace.
Stewart knows his way around the camera and uses light and angles effectively to build drama and set moods. The only self-reverential nod to The Daily Show is a brief segment in which Bahari agrees to a satirical interview with Jason Jones. Need I tell you that Iran's masters are not noted for their sense of humor? Stewart wisely abandons his TV rant style for a detached one that makes the Iranian government appear more ridiculous (and dangerous) than any contrived script could have done. Stewart's only slip-up lies in odd casting. Garcia Bernal is a fine actor capable of chameleon performances and he does his best in Rosewater. Still, Bernal is Mexican and aren't we decades past the days in which we don't "see" when someone is in ethnic drag? Good as Bernal was, there are numerous Iranian actors who would have been more appropriate choices (Ramin Korimloo, Asghar Farhadi, Shabab Hosseini…).
I'm at a loss to understand why this film bombed at the box office: just $3.1 million in receipts on a budget of over $5 million. Maybe Americans only want Jon Stewart to be funny, or maybe the bleak subject put them off. Or maybe they swallowed the same Kool-Aid that Obama drank. Iran's reaction to this film was to denounce Stewart as a Zionist CIA agent. Isn't that what they said about Bahari? The Shah… Khomeini… the mullahs… The more things change, the more they stay the same. Good on Jon Stewart for exposing the reality beneath the turbans.