I had a lot of hopes for Jon Stewart’s first foray into narrative cinematic storytelling, which he’s never done before. I expected something passionate, principled, and political. In these I was not disappointed… and I was also pleased to discover that he has an aptitude for telling a complicated story that plays on multiple levels, both personal and cultural, in a smartly streamlined, easy-to-swallow way. What I wasn’t expecting was his tone in Rosewater: hopeful, almost serene, even gently amusing. Because not only is this not a pleasant story — BBC journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested and tortured as a spy, held for months in a notorious Tehran prison — but that just isn’t the brash, aggressive, angry Jon Stewart we’re used to on The Daily Show. Although now I’m reminded of that maxim about cynics being disappointed idealists: maybe this is Stewart attempting to recapture his optimism about the world (because, frankly, hoping that there’s still hope is the only way not to go insane).
Bahari (Gael García Bernal: Casa de Mi Padre, A Little Bit of Heaven) returns to his hometown of Tehran from London in 2009 to cover the Iranian elections, and immediately tumbles onto a band of young people with revolutionary spirits and a rooftop sea of (illegal) satellite dishes that give them access to the forbidden wider world. They are trying to make up for the enforced ignorance thrust upon them by their government, and when the election ends in a supposed landslide for “dictator” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, they cry for Bahari to use the “real weapon” he has — his videocamera — to get the truth about the rigged election out to the world. Which he does, via footage of postelection protests in which soldiers turn violently on civilians.
That’s when Bahari is arrested as a Western spy — he made Iran look bad in the eyes of the world. All his fault, of course.
Stewart — making not only his debut as director but also as screenwriter, adapting Bahari’s book about his experience — isn’t completely unsympathetic to the Iranians’ paranoia. Bernal beautifully portrays Bahari’s genuinely perplexed confusion over his arrest as he tries to talk reasonably with an interrogator he knows only as “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia: Love Is All You Need), for his distinctive scent. Yes, he concedes, it’s true that the CIA and MI-6 did screw up Iran in the 1950s by manufacturing the coup of a genuinely democratically elected leader when he refused to hand over the nation’s oil. But that was decades ago! And Bahari is a journalist, anyway, not a spy. It’s during the interrogation scenes that the film’s gentle humor comes to the fore, from the absurdity of the “evidence” of Bahari’s wrongdoing — appearing on TV with “spy” Jason Jones (that is, a Daily Show “foreign correspondent” in a satirical bit) — to the notion that it’s pretty absurd even to think that Newsweek magazine, one of Bahari’s outlets, still has any sway in the world, even if one were to worry about the influence of journalists.
Bahari’s isn’t not an important story that continues to have real impact on him — though he was eventually released, obviously, since he wrote a book about it, he cannot return to Iran — and continues to be an embarrassment, as it should be, to the Iranian government; I suspect it’s partly down to potential danger to any Iranian actors that the two leads here are Mexican (Bernal) and Danish (Bodnia). Which lends Stewart’s hopeful tone an even greater measure of hope, as if this were a story being told from further into the future, when fear and ignorance were no longer the weapons of despotic governments (should such a time ever come to pass!) and we could rest assured that the good guys won in the end. Maybe there’s a sort of whistling-past-the-graveyard attitude at play here. When Rosewater notes that when They come for the journalists, you know They are the ones who are afraid, that isn’t meant to apply only to the likes of Iran. And it doesn’t.