Comedy Central’s The Daily Show has been a lot more than simply a comedy news program since the 2000 presidential election. In fact, Jon Stewart and company, through satire, have given some of the most concise and smoldering commentary on the world, more than most “legitimate” news agencies. They’ve even been at the center of a real injustice, and that surely fueled Stewart’s desire to adapt this story into a feature film and direct it. This is the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist working for Newsweek who was arrested, detained, and interrogated for four months following his reporting on riots following the 2009 Iranian presidential election. He was accused of being a spy, and a bit he did on The Daily Show was used as a prime example of Bahari’s espionage, working with the Zionists and the CIA to overthrow the integrity of the West-hating Iranian regime.
Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari, a journalist living in London with a wife and a baby on the way. He travels to Iran to cover the very tumultuous and possibly game-changing 2009 election between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. There seemed to be a large and vocal group of young and disenfranchised voters who were eager for Iran to reform and supported Mousavi, and it was predicted to be a tight race, but the results showed that over 60% of the population voted for Ahmadinejad. This outraged many people, claiming malfeasance and vote tampering, but the nation’s religious leader said to accept Ahmadinejad and not do anything. Which, of course, led to rioting and violence and even some deaths, all of which were caught on tape by people like Bahari, who felt an obligation to his native home to get the truth out there.
This, of course, led to his 118-day life in prison where he was kept in solitary confinement most of the day except when he was taken to interrogation. He was almost always blindfolded and, as the title of the film suggests, the only way Bahari could identify his interrogator (played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia) was that he smelled of rosewater, which we see him apply to himself quite often. No matter how much Bahari is pressured, he refuses to admit to espionage, since he isn’t a spy, but his spirits are very low and only his pride keeps him from folding.
The movie is quite impressively directed, especially considering this is Stewart’s debut, and he gives us a lot of visual flourishes, especially in the beginning of the movie where Bahari returns to Iran and then sees the violence of the riots. There’s a great deal of care given to make the film look like news footage during these scenes. There’s also a recreation of Bahari’s Daily Show appearance, with Jason Jones reprising his role as himself.
The performances by Bernal and Bodnia are really terrific, though I wonder why there wasn’t more of an attempt to find Iranian actors to play these parts. Surely there are some. The story of Bahari is compelling and upsetting, and Stewart does a very admirable job of putting it together in a way that’s artful and cinematic without lessening the struggle of reality. There’s no cynicism in the movie, which perhaps a more jaded filmmaker would have added, and even “Rosewater” himself is presented as a man who is caught in a system rather than being happy to be in one.
Rosewater is a fine debut film and a very well told story of injustice and strength. It’s not maybe as hard-hitting as it could be, but it’s certainly worth looking for. Bahari’s story is not as rare as you might think.