Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is one of the most beloved pop culture institutions in America, and one of my own personal favorites. So yes, I went into Rosewater very much wanting it to be good, if only because I respect Jon Stewart so much. I state my biases at the start, so you can take what you will with the fact that I found his film Rosewater to be a profound documentation of totalitarian authority and one man’s fight to stay hopeful in the face of psychological torture. We’ve seen this kind of movie before. Midnight Express essentially blueprinted the contemporary prison torture movie, but what Stewart does here – with the story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian journalist held erroneously in solitary confinement for five months – is surprising. He does not fill the film with despair and anguish, he does not want you to learn from Bahari’s torture. He is more interested in Bahari’s spirit, and his ability to stay true to his ideals even as his surroundings become more and more bleak, even as the promise of ever seeing his pregnant wife again become smaller and smaller. Rosewater is not a hard, brutal drama, but a warm tribute to a man who faced a regime’s inhuman protocol and kept his humanity in tact.

It’s probably silly to be surprised at this, considering that Stewart is one of the top comedians in the country, but Stewart’s screenplay does surprise you with its use of humor. There are times when the required tonal shifts are rougher than others, but Stewart’s management of the film’s laughs is pretty on point – he makes sure that we’re never laughing at the characters. It makes some sense since a part of Bahari’s story deals with the journalist’s appearance on The Daily Show. Living in London, Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) decides to take a job from Newsweek Magazine to cover the controversial 2009 Presidential Election in Iran. The race is between the oppressive sitting president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and promising challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and while the elite still support the sitting president, the common people prefer a new choice. They want a president who will not disregard human rights. Bahari leaves his wife, Paola (Claire Foy), but promises to be back in a week. She’s not happy that her husband visiting a country that is already in unrest for an election they expect to be rigged for Ahmadinejad. Bahari is from Iran, though, and is more comfortable there than most. We’re told in a superfluous, exposition dumping segment early in the film about the family’s history: Maziar’s father was imprisoned for being a communist and his sister, Maryam, was imprisoned for general disagreement with the unfair regime. Maziar is no stranger to the turbulent culture in Iran, and thinks he knows how to manage it, though he’s proven to be wrong.

Upon arriving in Tehran, Maziar meets his mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) at his childhood home – a proud woman who reveals quickly that she too is not going to stay quiet when faced with political injustice. He hires a young driver, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), to take him from interview to interview, including one of Maziar’s past friends preaching the spiritual righteousness of Ahmadinejad’s regime. Annoyed, Davood brings Maziar to the slums with the common people, who all wish for a new leader who will help those in need. But Ahmadinejad ends up winning in a landslide, sparking outrage and mass protests on the streets of Iran who feel cheated of a fair election. One of Maziar’s interviews ends up being with Jason Jones from The Daily Show, posing as an American spy for a comedy segment. When, on the next day, he is arrested, blindfolded and thrown into a solitary confinement cell, he learns that his captors will use all these events against him. Maziar’s main interrogator, Javadi (Kim Bodnia), does little physical punishment, preferring instead to do a number on his inmate psychologically, playing horrific mind games in an attempt to crush Maziar’s hope. What Maziar does have on his side is his power of mind, which allows him to speak with his long deceased father, Baba (Haluk Bilginer), in moments where he needs solace.

Stewart’s treatment of Javadi is one of the film’s more surprising developments. We know from his show that Stewart is incredibly aware of international political issues and that he does not see them as black and white. He does not make Javadi a ruthless torturer. No, instead Stewart crafts the man as a weathered but dedicated worker, held under the thumb of his sinister boss, Haj Agha (Nasser Faris). It is Agha who has the real contempt for Bahari and it is he who instructs Javadi on how to break him. Agha knows that an endorsement from a well-respected journalist like Maziar Bahari would do wonders for the current government, and he will stop at nothing till he gets the proper acknowledgment. But this leaves Javadi with little to work with; an expert interrogator, he knows little in the ways of actual persuasion. The performance from Danish actor Kim Bodnia is terrific in its achievement of showing how pathetic Javadi is while still keeping the character’s dignity. Stewart shows Javadi’s illusions of his workplace quickly disintegrating in the face of what his boss is asking him to do to a world class journalist. But unlike many characters in films like these, Javadi is trapped into his circumstance – there is no way he can turn back from this form of life at this point. In this way, Javadi’s story is almost the most tragic part of Rosewater – he’s the one in real confinement.

Javadi and Agha never succeed in breaking Maziar’s spirit, but they do come close. And yet, Rosewater does not seem as outraged at the treatment as you might think. Stewart does not dwell too long on Maziar’s daily struggles, instead focusing on the man’s ability to overcome them, whether it be through imaginary conversations with his dead father and sister, or through one-man dance parties as Leonard Cohen songs play inside his head. Even during interrogation, Maziar learns to tell specific kinds of stories to avoid abuse and play toward Javadi’s ignorant curiosity. The wonderful strength of Bahari is illuminated by the strong performance from the brilliant Mexican film actor Gael Garcia Bernal who has evolved into one of today’s most glorious, dignified actors. In the early stages of his career, Garcia Bernal was famous for his boundless tear into roles – there was not a film or situation he was unafraid to play. Films like Y tu mama tambien and Bad Education played toward his youthful spontaneity. But in this decade, he has mellowed considerably, but the performances have become more nuanced and interesting. Last year, he played an innovative ad exec fighting the Pinochet regime in the Chilean film No. That film was devastatingly underwatched, but held one of the actor’s best performances. In Rosewater, there is more of the same. Garcia Bernal is playing adult roles now with less bells and whistles, and he’s responding to them with his best work to date.

Rosewater‘s biggest misstep is its attempts to make social media cinematic, which continues a trend of many films trying and failing to make things like Twitter hashtags and Facebook posts work within the narrative of a film. I’m beginning to think that this may simply not be possible. If it is, we probably don’t yet know the filmmaker that can pull it off. This is the first film that Jon Stewart ever directed and he threw his entire clout behind its promotion. This is not the greatest film ever made, but it is definitely a film to be proud of. It took a trying, but familiar story and managed to make it unique. Not only unique, but fair, as its ability to humanize Iranian interrogators showed that Stewart is a storyteller way above villainizing an entire culture for the sake of drama. With the performances from Bodnia and Garcia Bernal, the film is given a foundation on which to grow into a gripping, inspiring story of self-preservation in the face of despair. I use the word ‘inspiring’ even though it does not play the same tricks that ‘inspiring films’ tend to settle for in order to get the audience hooked. Stewart obviously felt a real connection, no doubt aided by The Daily Show‘s unfortunate role in Bahari’s imprisonment. He knows that there isn’t a whole lot to be added to Bahari’s story to make it work as a narrative. It’s a movie about hope, but it also makes you hopeful for the state of American political movies down the line.


Written for the Screen and Directed by Jon Stewart