Rosewater has many technical issues usually found in films from first-time directors, especially if said director doesn’t have much of a background in filmmaking to begin with. The flat cinematography, some awkward uses of music, and an adequate yet generic approach to visual storytelling are all obvious shortcomings in The Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s directorial debut.
However, what’s also obvious is Stewart’s heartfelt dedication in bringing the wrongfully imprisoned and tortured Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari’s true story to life. This is one of those cases where the importance of the story and the passion behind the delivery trumps most technical inadequacies.
Rosewater might not be as urgent of a theatrical experience as a visual feast like Interstellar, and could be easily enjoyed on a smaller screen, but that shouldn’t distract us from the fact that it successfully tells a profoundly moving story that’s equal parts enraging and hopeful.
Not to forget that it also holds the rare distinction of being a Western-produced film that truthfully depicts the many troubling yet oddly life-affirming aspects of life in Iran without the filter of a Western protagonist. Let’s not kid ourselves, Rosewater will reach more audiences thanks to Stewart’s fame than a small Iranian film about the same subject would have. Just for that aspect of the production, Stewart’s passion project should be applauded.
Maziar (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an Iranian journalist who leaves his life in England and his pregnant wife Paola (Claire Foy) for what he thinks will be a short gig covering the 2009 presidential election in Iran for Newsweek. He reports on the protests that erupt after corruption charges are raised against Ahmadinejad’s "landslide victory", and even finds time to participate in a comedy bit with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones.
After the disappointing results of the election, Stewart economically shows the emotional fatigue the Iranian people feel after being screwed over by generations of despots: When Maziar’s mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) finds out that Musharraf "lost" even in his hometown, she mourns “They wouldn’t even LET him win his own home”.
Before he can even think about going back to his family, Maziar is unceremoniously picked up by the Iranian police, thrown into solitary confinement, where he begins a long and painful ordeal full of emotional and physical torture. The reason? The Iranian government is losing its grip on the people and they need an influential journalist like Maziar to confess to being a Western spy who was tasked by the CIA and the Zionists to spread “lies” about a corrupt election.
All aspects of Rosewater’s marketing already makes this perfectly clear, but it’s important to understand that Rosewater is as far removed from Stewart’s signature sly sarcasm, or any attempt at broad comedy for that matter, as it possibly can be. There are a couple of moments of levity that come from the unintentional humor created by the sheer absurdity of Maziar’s grim predicament, the best being Maziar’s made-up story about Stewart’s home state of New Jersey being a free-for-all sex massage paradise, which will be doubly hilarious to anyone who ever lived in or even visited the state. Otherwise, Steward is dedicated to bring this story to the screen with as much brutal realism as possible.
Another wise choice on Stewart’s part is that once Maziar is imprisoned, he doesn’t cut to any of the efforts that went into freeing him. This way, the audience can feel the same isolation, confusion and hopelessness as the character. This approach works so well that even a brief shot of Moloojoon watching her son on TV becomes an unnecessary touch.
The performances are top-notch all around and successfully cover for a lot of the film’s technical shortcomings. Bernal is very convincing as an Iranian character, Aghdashloo reminds us once again why she was once nominated for an Oscar and deserves a role that will finally bring her the statuette, and legendary Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer provides the project’s soul as Maziar’s father with his stoic yet emotionally charged performance.
The flat cinematography by Bobby Bukowski shows the overtly clean and smooth look of digital cameras in every frame. I was surprised to find out that Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) wrote the score, considering most of it sounded like a first timer cranking out some rudimentary music for the sake of exposure.
Apart from some visually inspired choices, such as a sequence giving insight into Maziar’s past through images superimposed on London storefronts, Stewart sticks to a pretty bland and predictable directorial approach. Some of his choices show a lack of trust in the audience’s cognitive abilities. For example, we get that Maziar’s hallucinating his conversations with his dead father, we don’t really need to repeatedly cut back to shots of him alone in his cell.
Aside from these technical issues, Rosewater constructs a heartfelt story about the power of hope and the importance of standing one’s ground against those who abuse their authority to muscle their people into subservience. In a technical sense, it might have been a better film if Stewart found a more established director to helm his screenplay adapted from Maziar’s book, but if no one else was willing to tackle it, so be it. This story was too important to be put into the typical Hollywood turnaround.