Such is the case with Rosewater (2014), Jon Stewart’s tedious, heavy-handed film documenting the harrowing detainment and torture of a Newsweek journalist during the tumult surrounding the Iranian presidential elections in 2009. The picture, based on a true story detailed in a book by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy, should be a lot better. But it isn’t, and Stewart, who directed as well as wrote the script, fails to elevate the proceedings to anything more than melodrama.
This is a shame, because there’s potentially a lot to say in this tale … about freedom, the will to live and the capacity to tell the truth under duress. There’s a note at the end calling attention to the plight of people being wrongfully detained for bearing witness, as Bahari was in Iran, and it’s a heartfelt sentiment. Unfortunately, it’s also preachy, and the movie suffers for it. Rosewater is a “man must” film: It hits you over the head with the idea that man must not do this to others, and ultimately, it’s too much. There’s no subtlety, nuance. Everything’s in earnest.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. As Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) films and interviews people for his story, he is led to some of the students at the forefront of the movement to back the opponent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who ultimately became president in an election that was widely considered to have been rigged. Stewart, however, doesn’t develop the relationships between Bahari and these individuals, and so their interactions feel limited; when the journalist meets his former driver in jail and says he will try to help him, the basis for this sentiment doesn’t feel solid. Similarly, when Bahari is sent to solitary confinement for days on end, he winds up talking to visions of his father and sister, who were also imprisoned years before … and their conversations feel forced, artificial. They don’t feel real – no matter if they were in real life. In the movie, they don’t hold up.
It’s a problem that extends to other moments, including narration near the opening of the film that basically takes away whatever suspense there may have been during Bahari’s interrogation. Stewart uses lots of quick edits during the questioning scenes that are meant to show the endlessness of the procedure as Bahari is asked again and again if he is a Western spy, forced to sign confessions, beaten, threatened and berated. But these cuts only serve to lessen the impact of the film. They make it jumpy, hesitant. Instead of delivering punches, it pulls them.
In a movie with a story as frightening as Rosewater’s, you can’t do that.
Stewart’s a popular comedian known for his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1996-present) in the United States, as well as his liberal outlook. Rosewater is the first film he has directed, and it’s an earnest effort. It’s also a problematic one, delivering less than it promises. Bernal does what he can with his role, though it’s somewhat two-dimensional, showing an innocent character without multiple facets … just a desire to convey the truth, which involves featuring the horror of the Iranian regime. Other characters, such as his driver (Dimitri Leonidas) and mother (Shoreh Aghdashloo) also aren’t well-rounded enough for the audience to care about them. It’s not an issue of having too many people engaged in the drama. It’s an issue of not imbuing them with life. They’re flat onscreen, and so the picture feels manipulative when Bahari connects with them, as well as talks with his pregnant wife (Claire Foy). We should empathise, but we don’t. There’s no cinematic impact.
Plenty of first-time directors have made underwhelming debuts, so I’m not going to write Stewart off. I do think, however, that earnestness is not a substitute for inspiration, and any subsequent projects of his should rein the former in. Bahari’s story is a powerful one, but it doesn’t tell itself. It needs a good screenwriter, director, like any material. Without those elements, it’s not must-watch moviemaking.
And no story transcends that rule. None.