What Did They Put in Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater'?

Stewart’s comic genius fails to translate into film excellence in his first attempt as a writer and director.

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Rosewater Written and directed by Jon Stewart, based on the book by Maziar Bahari; with Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Claire Foy

I won’t bother here to sing the praises of Jon Stewart, the witty host of “The Daily Show.” Many have done so before me, and some even consider Stewart to be one of the most influential figures in contemporary America, at least on the liberal side of the political map. Stewart is a winning television personality; but now he has also decided to write and direct his first feature, “Rosewater,” and the result suggests that being successful in one area is no guarantee of doing quite as well in another.

“Rosewater” is not an embarrassing or disgraceful work, unlike other debut pictures by directors who came to filmmaking from some other pursuit. But it lacks almost everything that allows a movie to do more than just tell a story onscreen: dramatic depth, precise rhythm, skilled use of locations, in-depth characterization and more.

On the one hand, Stewart deserves respect for choosing, as his first film project, not a political satire – which might have been the obvious move – but a movie in which solemnly unfolds a real-life story, albeit one with a political dimension. Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a Newsweek reporter who comes to Tehran to cover the 2009 presidential elections, in which – probably due to irregularities in the voting process – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beat out his opponent Mir-Hossein Moussavi. It is bold of Bahari, a Canadian national, to come to Iran: he was born in Tehran and left the country only as a young adult. Both his brother and his sister were arrested in the past, first by the Shah’s people and then by Khomeini’s.

Bahari travels to Tehran from London, where he lives with his wife (Claire Foy), who is in the early stages of pregnancy. In Iran he meets a group of liberal young intellectuals opposed to the regime. When the election results are announced on June 12 and mass protests break out, he dares to videotape the gunfire opened on many of the demonstrators.

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All this happens in the first half hour of the movie; then Bahari is arrested and thrown into prison, where he stays for 118 days. The film’s remaining 103 minutes are devoted to his suffering while incarcerated. Bahari is accused of being a double agent for every possible Western intelligence service – his captors seem unable to decide which one, so they choose to say that he works for them all – and of other far-fetched charges, such as possession of pornography based on a tape of “The Sopranos” found among his things. It might have made for a powerful story: It has been a long time since we last saw a movie about the dangers of journalistic work, and prison cells have been the setting of many impressive pictures. But Stewart, as both writer and director, fails in handling three main aspects of the plot.

First, because the movie is based on Bahari’s book, we know how it will end, and a movie of that kind has to find a way to generate suspense nonetheless; “Rosewater” does not. Second, Stewart is unable to convey effectively the panic and fear of being in prison when the prisoner does not know when, if ever, he will be released. Some moments in “Rosewater” have great dramatic and emotional potential, such as when Bahari thinks he has been forgotten by both the Iranians and the rest of the world. But his character is so faintly sketched that the distress he feels does not impact the audience so as to evoke strong identification.

Third – and here we come to the movie’s main failing – the depiction of the relationship that develops between Bahari and his primary interrogator, a man he nicknames “Rosewater” because of his smell, fumbles the dramatic potential of this bond. In the role of Rosewater Stewart cast the Danish actor Kim Bodnia, known to us from the television series “The Bridge.” This is an interesting choice, but Stewart does not put it to interesting use. Bodnia plays a rather inept and confused interrogator who fails even to break down his prisoner and elicit the information he does not possess in any case.

It therefore feels as though Stewart is mocking the representative of the evil Iranian regime in a patronizing, even childish way; it might make Iran’s enemies happy, but it lacks the maturity and ideological fairness we might have expected Stewart to show. The result is therefore a flat picture, not unlike a rather simple kind of television drama. Watching “Rosewater” made me want to say to Stewart: Don’t give up your day job just yet.