Posted by Joel Copling on November 14, 2014

"Rosewater" tells an extraordinary true story with a softball attitude. This is disappointing, considering the film comes from Jon Stewart (yes, of "The Daily Show" fame), who is making his debut as director, writer, and co-producer. He is one of our most important voices in the political sphere--certainly more valuable than anyone currently on MSNBC or FOX News, both of which act as an echo chamber of political extremes. Perhaps there has been a loss of Stewart's edge in the transition of behind a desk to behind a camera, or, more likely, the lack of resources for a two-week shoot was the culprit. For "Rosewater" makes honorable points with filmmaking precision and a gratifying bluntness, but it exists as a superficial examination of the issues.

The story behind the making of "Rosewater" is nearly as extraordinary as the story itself. Maziar Bahari, journalist for Newsweek, was covering the Iranian elections in June 2009 (the ones with Ahmedinejad and Mosavi as competing candidates) when he was offered the chance to be "interviewed" by "Daily Show" co-host Jason Jones (who appears here as himself). The interview, which cast Jones as an "American spy" against Bahari's "whistleblower," was merely one round of ammunition among many for the Iranian police, who detained Bahari on the basis of "media espionage." The detention was a long 118 days in solitary confinement, interspersed with daily, lengthy interrogations that fenced the line between tough questioning and emotional torment.

Stewart, clearly out of a sense of guilt that his own satirical program was used in such a way, then set himself the task of turning the story into a movie, and here is the result. There is clear passion in his intentions here, too. The Bahari of the film, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is a man intrigued by where his investigation leads him (to "Dish University," where a contact played by Dimitri Leonidas takes part in the revolution against Ahmedinejad) and excited by a home life that includes a wife (Claire Foy) about to give birth to a daughter and a mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) with whom he has recently gotten back on good terms. When the Iranian police interrogation heats up (headed by a terrific Kim Bodnia's stoic, humorless "Specialist"), we are easily willing to invest our emotions in Bahari's situation.

But that investment comes at the price of a treatment that lacks the edge it needs to hit home its main thematic: that the humorless men in control are ruled by paranoia, not reason. Mostly, it's a solid piece of angry journalism featuring good performances from its cast and some nicely gritty cinematography from Bobby Bukowski. Stewart's vibrant voice as a screenwriter shows through on occasion, such as in the interrogations run by the "Specialist;" one, particularly humorous exchange, in which Bahari confronts the "Specialist's" obsessive interest in the reporter's sex life by contriving a story involving sensual massages, is almost too good to be true. Even so, these exchanges are sometimes conveyed through montage, which gets old. Still, "Rosewater" is a valuable effort--with reservations.

Film Information

Gael Garcia Bernal (Maziar Bahari), Kim Bodnia ("Specialist"), Dimitri Leonidas (Davood), Haluk Bilginer (Baba Akbar), Shohreh Aghdashloo (Moloojoon), Golshifteh Farahani (Maryam), Claire Foy (Paola).

Directed and written by Jon Stewart, based on the book "Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival" by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy.

Rated R (language including crude references, violent content).

103 minutes.

Released on November 14, 2014.