Nov 28, 2014
Jon Stewart wrote and directed his first movie, based on the book by Maziar Bahari, "And Then They Came For Me", a memoir of the journalist's imprisonment by the Iranian government on suspicion that he was a spy because he gave an interview to Jason Jones from the Daily Show, and the Iranian security forces didn't get the joke.
Rosewater's heart is in the right place, but it is bogged down by a sense of faithfulness to the book and by not enough creative distance. The movie feels constrained by trying to honor Bahari. Gael García Bernal does a solid job with a character that is not interesting enough. The reason for this may be the emotional proximity of Stewart to Bahari, who is his friend, and the story (he feels responsible for what happened).
I'm not doubting that Bahari is a nice and decent chap, but as a movie hero, he lacks contrast. It is interesting that he, a journalist for Newsweek at the time, is a careful man, a man who is not impulsive, or who likes to seek danger. An A-type personality, he is not. And that is cool.
He is no hero, and rather a passive observer until he gets picked up, and even then he is not cocky or particularly resourceful. This may be true to life, and I respect Stewart's decision not to turn him into a Hollywood cliché, but I kept wishing to see a less angelical part of him. He caves in too easily, which makes him an anomaly as heroic prisoners go, but this is not explored sufficiently.
For a movie about the solitary confinement and psychological torture of a man, Rosewater lacks power. There is an inherent problem in having protagonists who are passive victims, but there are things heroes can do to seem active. There is not much of that here. The problem lies in the structure. The movie starts when they come for Bahari and then establishes his life prior to that moment. In the second half, we move to him in jail. So it feels like there are two long acts. There is no suspense. If the story had been told chronologically, more clearly with a normal before and a very disrupted after, we may have dreaded from the beginning what was going to happen to him. But the structure drains it of tension. I also missed a sense of curiosity or observation of the culture, a texture of the life in Tehran. Rosewater is painted in broad strokes, particularly in the first half.
Stewart is good with the actors, but he can't muster a sense of tension. Also unhelpful are the TV-like graphics that are used to enhance some of the scenes. They are hokey. Surely there are more cinematic ways of illustrating a social media revolution. And the movie, as restrained as it is in depicting Bahari's imprisonment, is unabashedly sentimental.
Stewart manages some good scenes in jail, thanks to the committed work of Bernal and his nemesis, the Specialist, the excellent Kim Bodnia, as well as to better writing. He seems to feel more at home writing the exchanges between prisoner and captor, than crafting the flow of the story. The fact that Stewart inflects some of his humor into the movie helps a lot. You can almost hear his voice when the gags come along, and they are all welcome, not only for comic relief but because they illustrate the absurd, Kafkaesque bent of repressive heavies with no imaginations, whom I found a bit too unsophisticated. Rosewater feels like an early draft. It is curiously soft, a bit lethargic.
It lacks the killer instinct that makes Stewart comedy so sharp.