Jon Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ fails to powerfully stir emotions

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Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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With the striking images of journalists clothed in orange jumpsuits kneeling in Syrian sand firmly implanted in the global consciousness, the story of Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” could not be more relevant or salient. In Stewart’s directorial debut, the notorious “Daily Show” satirist adapts Maziar Bahari’s memoir “Then They Came for Me,” an account of the 118 days the Iranian journalist spent in the feared Evin Prison in Tehran on accusations of being a Western spy.

Although the story itself is powerful and undoubtedly showcases the courage of people such as Bahari who are dedicated to informing the world of human injustices through journalism, the film fails to sufficiently capture the source material. Instead of showcasing the magnitude of the situation, it contains vigor that only accomplishes occasional slight blimps on an otherwise flat line on the heart monitor.

In the film, Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a London-based journalist for Newsweek who is sent to Tehran, his hometown, to cover the 2009 presidential election between the suppressive incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was a symbol of hope for the Iranian people. With a camera in hand, Bahari walks the streets of Tehran and films the passion the people have for a Mousavi victory. Once Ahmadinejad unfairly wins the election, Bahari is arrested and taken to Evin Prison due to accusations of him being a spy. There, he is psychologically and physically tortured by a man he calls Rosewater (Kim Bodnia).

The fact that Jon Stewart is the force behind the movie brings obvious comedic expectations for fans, and the half-hearted fulfillment of these expectations is one of the main problems with the film. It comes off as if Jon Stewart felt like he had to be funny just because he’s Jon Stewart — throwing audiences a shiny, marketable bone while still trying to be dramatic and powerful, which leads to the film falling in an awkward spot somewhere in between.

And although this is certainly not a knee-slapping comedy flick, there are several instances of forced humor throughout the film that seem to trivialize and distract from the serious matter at hand. Even in one of the most important and emotional scenes in the movie when Bahari gets the chance to call his wife, Stewart throws in an unproductive joke about how Bahari has to dial nine to call outside the prison.

Contrary to what one may expect, the film contains fairly little physical torture. In a question and answer session with Stewart and Bahari after a screening at Berkeley’s Repertory Theatre, Stewart compared violence in the movie to the shark in “Jaws,” and then said, “Violence is an anomaly, solitary confinement is the rule. … The expectation of violence is sometimes more brutal.” Therefore, he had to attempt to depict the methodical psychological breakdown that Mahari was forced to undergo in solitary confinement, which is a much more nuanced undertaking than relying on several physical beating scenes. The attempt falls short, as the deep mental turmoil isn’t sufficiently captured to make the glimmers of hope and ultimate freedom feel satisfying or important enough.

The interrogations don’t contain enough tension but rather feature a levity that puts a halt to any mental-breakdown narrative arc. Therefore, once the scenes featuring resilient hope, which are truly well done, make an appearance, the audience receives a shallow emotional pull. Memorable scenes of a blindfolded Bahari reaching up to feel the sunshine on his skin and him gleefully dancing in his cell to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To The End Of Love” don’t carry the same weight without equally strong images of mental deterioration to contrast with them. Even Bahari’s imminent release is portrayed as a rushed and unsentimental after-thought, as if showing it as a mere formality rather than an exclamation point on the triumph over suppression.

One can not discredit the real-world importance of the film’s subject matter, though. The story itself is incredible, and Stewart should be applauded for helping to spread awareness for a terrible daily truth. “I truly believe malevolence and evil is rare,” Stewart said in the Q&A. “Ignorance,  on the other hand … Ignorance is a widespread affliction, and we all suffer from it, but it can be healed.” In this regard, “Rosewater” succeeds, for, in Stewart’s words, it provides a more nuanced look than the “Death to America” perception of Iranian people, and it shows optimism for the inevitable destruction of suppressive regimes around the world.

As a piece of cinema, “Rosewater” falters to find a solid ground, but as a vehicle for raising awareness and stirring inspiration, it effectively sends its message.

“Rosewater” opens in theaters on November 14.

Taran is the assistant arts editor. Contact him at [email protected].