Several years ago, in the course of a much-publicized kerfuffle, The Daily Show host Jon Stewart described his project as being first and foremost an entertainer’s. “Here’s the difference between you and I. I’m a comedian first,” he told Chris Wallace, who’d invited him onto Fox News Sunday to be grilled about his supposed political agenda. “What am I at my highest aspiration, who am I? Am I Edward R. Murrow, or am I Mark Twain?”
The answer at the time seemed obvious. Since then, though, Stewart has started taking on the Murrow mantle. The first feature film that he has written and directed, Rosewater, out this week, shares its ambitions with striving past entertainment—movies, like Syriana and The Hurt Locker, that seek to report, to inform, and perhaps to persuade viewers about the uses and abuses of this era’s global politics. Rosewater’s subject is the Ahmadinejad government’s arrest and 118-day incarceration and abuse of the Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari (based on his 2011 memoir, Then They Came for Me). And although it’s trimmed with the absurdist line–writing Stewart is known for, the movie ends up a surprisingly, sometimes uncomfortably, earnest film.
Bahari (Gael García Bernal) grew up in Tehran but has since left; he works in London as a journalist and lives with his young wife (Claire Foy), who is pregnant with their first child. Late in the spring of 2009, however, he returns to Tehran to cover the coming presidential election: The reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi seems to have a broad enough following to triumph over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and many have hopes for a more open, democratic future. Bahari’s father (Haluk Bilginer) and his older sister (Golshifteh Farahani, both appearing in flashback) were activists against, respectively, the Shah of Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini; both were jailed and died. But his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) remains, and he stays with her as he travels around Tehran with a video camera, filming footage in the run-up to election day. He talks with Ahmadinejad supporters. He falls in with well-educated reformists, who have set up an illegal satellite network on a roof. His personal hopes for reform are high, so he’s surprised and discouraged when the results come in: Ahmadinejad has been reelected by nearly sixty-three percent. The election, it is widely believed, was rigged.
Protests break out. The regime does not answer them warmly. Near the start of the uprisings now known as the Green Revolution, Bahari is Johnny-on-the-spot with his camera when guards outside the military headquarters open fire on the crowd. Bahari, full of indignation, lets the footage air on Western television. Soon after that, he wakes one morning, at his mother’s, to find government men gazing down at him from the foot of the bed.
In prison, Bahari has a daily blindfolded interview with an aging thug (Kim Bodnia) whom he can identify only by smell of rosewater—a sign, he knows from childhood, of strong religious devotion. Because Bahari is thought to be intelligent and cosmopolitan, his interrogators forgo the use of brute force and torture (at least initially). They think he is a spy; they are confused about what Newsweek is. Bahari agrees to read a “confession” that has been written for him on Iranian TV, but, when the statement fails to sway global opinion, his captors bear down. He escapes the harshest punishment by telling the rosewater man—a dutiful fool—that he has traveled widely not for espionage or journalism but to slake an addiction to erotic massage.
The story is good, and Stewart lays it out engagingly, with a sharp eye for pacing and a light touch on the diplomatic complexities involved. He inadvertently played a small role in the events leading up to Bahari’s arrest (in 2009, one of Stewart’s Daily Show correspondents, posing as a spy, interviewed the real Bahari on camera, and the Iranian government appears to have taken the segment seriously), and Rosewater uses that confusion to flesh out Bahari’s blithe amiability.
In Stewart’s telling, in fact, Bahari is an angelic man: a model husband, an intrepid journalist, and a moral innocent. His rosewater-smelling tormentor is a dupe and an idiot. The green-dressed rebels are, without exception, chill and awesome guys. The possibility that those on the side of democracy can have moments of bad faith, or that smart people can become ensorcelled by oppressive regimes, or that every revolution has its share of bad behavior—complexities such as these are nowhere in evidence. If the global ascent of democracy were so straightforward, the problems of the Middle East would have been solved, with little bloodshed, long ago.
The same streamlining that makes Rosewater entertaining, in fact, purges it of the uncertainties that might make for a more deeply entrancing film. Where the movie’s politics are lucid, they’re gratuitous (oppressive, propagandistic regimes are bad; a democratic press is good), and where they might be nuanced, they are vague (we learn that the heroic Iranian rebels believe in good satellite reception; we learn little else about their views). In the minutes leading to Bahari’s eventual release, the film swells with the idea that Western media activism has overcome the information-darkness of Iran. Democracy rules! it nearly cheers. And yet, because its point of view centers on Bahari’s prison experience, the way democracy rules is never wholly clear.
What Western audiences need, especially at this moment, is an understanding of why democratic infrastructures in places like the Middle East can fail—not a blind confidence that our ways are the best and will succeed by righteous force. In Rosewater, Stewart had an exceptional cast: Bernal delivers an award-worthy performance as Bahari, and Bodnia manages to give his brutish character a greater pathos than the script admits. The movie works well, but, possibly, his next one will work better still. The mantle of Murrow is heavy, and it should not conceal much.
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