“I used to think only the most pious shared that scent”
We all need inspiration to propel us onto new paths we may previously have never thought about pursuing or at least never found a good enough reason to take that first step. The director’s chair called Jon Stewart through a story deserving to be told in which he actually played a periphery role. Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari was always going to be scooped up by Iranian officials and held in the same prison his sister and father were decades previously, but a joke courtesy of “The Daily Show’s” Jason Jones during an interview on the cusp of the Middle Eastern country’s 2009 elections certainly didn’t help. Mocking the concept of spies and terrorists while using levity to shine a light on the vote’s importance, Bahari’s 118-day incarceration was partly forged by an oppressive regime’s complete lack of humor.
Bahari—with Aimee Molloy—wrote about the ordeal in Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival and Stewart tasked himself to adapt it into Rosewater. The farce at its center is an intriguing detail you have to believe Stewart couldn’t help but latch onto considering his day job at Comedy Central. The sheer audacity of a government detaining someone because of an obvious joke—whether due to a cultural barrier or not—is almost too absurd to be true. Bahari’s captors admitted they didn’t arrested him because he filmed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s military police violently suppressing those rioting in support of the man he defeated at the polls. After all, he’s an accredited member of the media and they have “nothing to hide”. Labeling him a spy instills a lot more fear anyway.
I don’t know how the book unfolds, but the film’s trajectory is somewhat clumsy. Despite everyone who saw the trailer being aware Bahari (Gael García Bernal) eventually gets arrested, Stewart chooses to start with the morning of his arrest before then going back a week to show what led to the fall. He also splices in brief memories connected to the pieces of pop culture the “specialist” in charge of collecting him (Kim Bodnia‘s Javadi) picks up as evidence in an attempt to humanize our victim as quickly as possible. In doing so, though, we’re introduced to a bunch of characters from his past that we have no context for until later. This leads to confusion and a few thoughts that the choice was merely made for emotional flourish rather than as a necessary storytelling device.
This isn’t the only awkward instance of editing, though, as time becomes muddled later on via another flashback of Bahari’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo‘s Moloojoon) and wife (Claire Foy‘s Paola) mobilizing after his disappearance. I don’t question this decision on the whole because leaving us in the dark to what’s happening outside the prison helps us to effectively invest in Bahari’s isolation. The issue comes with how rushed and immediate Stewart depicts their actions despite already being two-months in otherwise. If anything, showing more of what went on internationally may have been better since this tiny glimpse only harms the pacing. Rather than stick to the human story on the ground we wanted, Stewart pulls us out for the obvious political message to usurp center stage. While not for long, it was enough for me to feel bored.
In the timeline of the film, nothing they, America, or western media does or say has any effect on Bahari’s decisions. His choices are instead assisted by the ghosts of the family members who once stood where he is. It’s the visage of his Baba (Haluk Bilginer) reminding him to be strong and say nothing that talks him out of giving up early on. And it’s his sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) who inspires him to defeat his oppressors by wielding his freedom. Sure learning that Hilary Clinton knew who he was bolstered confidence, but Bahari decided to not back down before Stewart shows us this fact. It proves to be such a miscalculation of information dissemination that I wonder how great Rosewater would have been if the whole thing took place in the prison.
The most effective and memorable moments are Bernal talking to people in his head and his messing with Javadi’s sense of authority and fascination with vices he can only imagine practicing. Bahari’s torture was different from the brutal beatings of detractors with no influence inside or outside their cell like Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) who ushered him around Tehran. He’s a valuable asset they wish to convert into a weapon, someone with clout they can force into telling Iran’s impressionable youths how manipulative and wrong westerners are about what’s happening within their borders. The pain inflicted by Javadi is therefore more psychological and emotional—terrorizing his hope and breaking down his defenses until he’s nothing more than the puppet they need. Watching this happen is riveting cinema.
Rather than trust it would be enough, in come social media graphics and news coverage Bahari never saw until after release. We already know it—maybe not as it concerned him, but there have been plenty of incidents before and after. We’ve paid to experience what he personally endured behind those cement walls and Stewart’s job was to make us keenly aware of the politics and injustices to freedom through his internally wrestling with ideals, morals, and a desire to live. Bernal delivers on this promise and Bodnia provides the perfect adversarial foil necessary to do so. Sadly, their success is too often compromised by Stewart’s excess of ubiquitous baggage. Each time we leave Bahari’s cell we remember how everything turns out okay. Leave us beneath that blindfold alongside him and his voices and Rosewater could have been brilliant.
 Gael García Bernal as Maziar Bahari in ROSEWATER, written and directed by Jon Stewart, opening November 14, 2014.
 Kim Bodnia as Rosewater and Gael García Bernal as Maziar Bahari in ROSEWATER, written and directed by Jon Stewart, opening November 14, 2014.
 Gael García Bernal, First Assistant Camera- Michael Burke, and Jon Stewart on the set of ROSEWATER, written and directed by Jon Stewart, opening November 14, 2014.