Film review: Jon Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ is a heavy political drama

Despite Jon Stewart’s comedy background, Rosewater gives only two percent of its running time to mild chuckles.
Photo: Courtesy
Jeffrey M. Anderson

Three stars

Rosewater Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Shohreh Aghdashloo. Directed by Jon Stewart. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, makes his directorial debut with Rosewater, a movie about an imprisoned journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) in Iran. But despite Stewart’s comedy background, the movie gives over maybe two percent of its running time to mild chuckles. The rest is serious. What could have been an effective grilling of politics is now an “issue” movie.

It’s a miscalculation for a man who has more journalistic integrity than most actual journalists, releasing incendiary news items wrapped up in satire and disbelief. Messages are more eagerly received when couched in comedy, even if so many comedians long to be taken seriously. Given that Rosewater consists largely of two men in a room talking, and given that Stewart has thousands of hours of experience in that arena, he certainly has the technical know-how to pull off the movie. Plus, Bernal has tons of charisma and earns sympathy, even as he begins to play by the twisted rules of his captors.

Bernal plays the real-life Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist for Newsweek who heads to Iran to visit his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and to cover the controversial 2009 election. After shooting footage of a violent protest, Bahari is arrested.

Stewart’s camera remains inside the gray walls during this time, depriving both Bahari and the viewer of any outside information or hope. And Bahari’s skilled questioner, nicknamed “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia), provides strange, dark psychological tension. Rather than a purely evil adversary, Rosewater is painted as a worker bee stuck in a flawed system, though certainly the relationship between questioner and prisoner could have gone deeper.

Despite the tortuously slow passing of time, Bahari’s sentence is relatively quiet and violence-free. Rosewater seems soft compared to movies like Steve McQueen’s Hunger, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet or Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, yet the tone is still heavy, especially as it reaches the finish. It’s as if Stewart had intended to tread lightly, but righteous indignation eventually won out.

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