You may remember that The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart fell away from our TV screens for several months over the Summer of 2013 as he worked on his directorial debut, Rosewater (released in Australian cinemas today). It was during this time that John Oliver took over Stewart’s show, which ended up seeing him get his own HBO series Last Week Tonight. And now Jon Stewart is leaving again – this time permanently – presumably to work on more films! So the question becomes, with its production influencing the space of popular culture as we know it – how does it stack up? Was this film worthy of Stewart’s effort away from his fake news desk?
Rosewater is based on a book called Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari – the film’s subject – and Aimee Molloy. The book – and by default the film – recounts the 118 days Bahari was imprisoned in Iran, accused of being a spy, in part because of a skit Bahari did on Jon Stewart’s popular Daily Show. So did Stewart make this film because he felt at least partly to blame for getting the guy into the situation? Possibly – though it was only one of the many factors. At the very least it served as a precipice for him to want to tell the story. And in an age where journalists are being jailed for simply showing people what’s happening in places like Egypt, it’s an important story to tell, too.
The film, which takes a factual approach, is given a predominantly documentary feel, with Stewart mixing in real footage from the region, some likely taken from Bahari himself, with the actors intermixed. Sometimes this approach is a bit disallusioning, reminding you that what you’re watching is a bunch of actors re-creating what happened. But it remains effective. The film takes us from the time Bahari landed in Iran to cover the controversial Iranian elections for Newsweek, through to the end of his imprisonment in 2009.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari in the film, playing a character dedicated to telling his story, while knowing when it’s time to put down the camera. As the situation develops, he knows how important telling the story has become – but he also knows how dangerous it is amongst a government full of corruption. There are some brilliant films early in the film that help establish the context and his character, as he develops friendships in the area, films his segment with Jason Jones for The Daily Show – recreated here to great effect.
But the majority of the film is spent in isolation with Bahari in the Iranian prison, as he battles through the mind games the bored interrogators throw at him. Bernal shines in these scenes as a man perplexed by the situation – he knew he’d shot a few things the government wouldn’t have wanted to get out, but he also knew he wasn’t a spy.
Stewart makes a concerted decision to keep with Bernal in the prison, and doesn’t take us out of the box to see what the rest of the world is thinking. By the time we find out what is going on, we’ve been taken through all the mind games with Bahari, and though you spend the time wondering why Stewart isn’t showing us the outside reaction, it does end up creating a great moment and the decision was understandable. Ir’s hard to argue though whether or not the film would have been more engaging if we were seeing both sides of the story in more detail. But it’s a testament to both Bernal, his interrogators and Stewart himself that the lengthy time in prison was such a watchable experience.
Stewart’s film is full of heart. He’s taken an important story and told it well, and though there are some problems with the execution, he’s shown himself to be a sound filmmaker. Gael Garcia Bernal did an excellent job, as did the supporting cast. But one thing that is definitely worth noting: Stewart should definitely never go to Iran. If they though Bahari was a spy, imagine what they’d think of him! And to answer that earlier question – yes, it was definitely worth his time.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Rosewater is in limited release from today.