“Rosewater” is a film that wishes to be seen as a testament to the power of hope and love, a plea directed at its viewers to stand up against injustice and celebrate the clout with which a single man can change the world. Unfortunately, it is also a film that fails to rise above the source material, unsuccessful at becoming something greater than the sum of its parts. While watching it, I couldn’t help but feel detached from the plight of Maziar Bahari. He is a man who underwent extraordinary hardships and suffered beyond imagination. If only the film did something to portray him as such.
Maziar Bahari is a journalist employed at Newsweek who travels to his native Iran to visit his mother and report the events of the country’s presidential election. He meets many who are hopeful for the rise of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a promising challenger to the despised incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When it is announced that Ahmadinejad has been reelected, riots erupt in the streets. Homes are stormed and innocent civilians are killed, horrific moments Bahari manages to capture on camera and are later broadcast over BBC. Not soon after, however, he is visited by anonymous men, is handcuffed, and taken to prison. There he is tortured and interrogated for a period of 118 days, his captors certain that he is, in fact, a foreign spy, and Newsweek a cover for American propaganda.
The film is a chronicle of Bahari’s imprisonment, spent either in his cell or in the interrogation room, where he has conversations with a man whom identifies only as Rosewater. The conversations are meant to divulge top-secret information, derive from Bahari a confession of guilt and a promise of loyalty to Iran. Little is learned, however, during these sessions, sessions that consist normally of constant denials followed by physical retribution. When he is not being punished, Bahari sits in his cell and speaks to his father; rather, a memory of his father, a man imprisoned for Communist ties.
For a dramatic film from a first-time director best known for a comedy show, “Rosewater” holds up well to the most rudimentary aspects of filmmaking. Stewart and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski shoot it in a straightforward, no frills style, one befitting the source material and tone, yet leaving the viewer empty. The film, unfortunately, is bereft of style and craftsmanship. Everything is plain and exceedingly average. The performances are good, not great. Technically speaking, the film does nothing wrong, yet does nothing to convince me that Jon Stewart can grow as a director, that he can develop a style all his own rather than cobbling together some rather plain looking shots and overlaying a soundtrack.
Most unfortunate, however, is a total lack of inspiration. Bahari’s father tells his son, “They can never take your hope. They know they cannot win.” Such words should catalyze the imprisoned journalist into some kind of opposition, a steadfast refusal to play by the rules of his captors, yet this never happens. It is only at the end of the movie that he shows any kind of resolve, dancing joyously in his cell. For most of the movie, a movie about hope, about the power one man has, Bahari sulks, sleeps, has conversations with his father that do little to convince him of anything, that do little to advance the characters that, criminally, the audience develops little empathy for; at a certain point, knowing the result of the based-on-fact story, I began watching more as an observer than someone along for the ride, invested in Maziar’s escape and redemption. For a movie that preaches against tyranny, that straight up asks the viewer to fight against corruption, it fails at creating sympathy for its protagonist, fails to add any emotional weight to the torture he suffers. Everything feels light, easily fixed, a minor inconvenience rather than a life-changing event from which escape seems impossible.
This might very well be the fault of Stewart, a man poorly versed in the composition of drama, let alone a feature film’s worth length of it. For a debut film, it shows promise, as I would recommend seeing it, though it’s not something one has to rush to the theater to see. Everything is from average to good, not one aspect shines, yet altogether it paints its picture competently and is a work that, with any luck, we’ll look back at as the unrefined first work of a fantastic director.
By Lucas Dispoto