Such is the likeability of the Mexican-born star Gael Garcia Bernal, who has Tom Hanks’s easy charm and Julia Roberts’s solar-powered smile, that when his character in Rosewater is charged with spying, it seems less an act of violated human rights than a crime against irony. Playing Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist incarcerated in Tehran for nearly four months in the riotous election year of 2009, Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries, No) holds the centre of Jon Stewart’s feature filmmaking debut: He’s a martyr to the cause of well-intentioned liberal joshing, victimized by fundamentalist bullies who can’t take a joke.
Literally. When the real Bahari was accused by Iranian intelligence officers of something called “media espionage,” the state’s Exhibit A was the Newsweek stringer’s appearance on Stewart’s The Daily Show, kibitzing along with faux correspondent Jason Jones about being a “terrorist” and “spy.” All in good fun of course, provided you’re a lefty in those enlightened United States. But in the Tehran of 2009, in the middle of a popular uprising against the re-election of the hard-line conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it’s no laughing matter. So, one morning that June in Tehran, Bahari was rounded up and spirited away.
In Stewart’s earnest and soft-centred account of events, Bahari is offered as an unfailingly decent guy with a pregnant wife (Claire Foy), an idealistic faith in democracy and journalistic autonomy and a tasteful DVD collection – Pasolini’s Teorema, The Sopranos – that his ideologically clueless captors nevertheless cite as proof of Bahari’s “pornographic” Western corruption.
Evil, if that’s not too strong a word for it, takes many forms, and in Stewart’s movie it takes the guise of radical, fun-killing extremism. Throughout Rosewater, which gets its title from the scent worn by the prison interrogator (Kim Bodnia), a man with unnerving personal-boundary issues, we’re reminded that border-vaulting technology is the ultimate ticket to freedom. Satellite dishes sprout like metallic blossoms on rooftops; digitally animated hashtags flurry across the screen as dissent erupts; and the spread of TV news is offered as something like a global outbreak of truth.
This should come as no surprise from a filmmaker who’s made his career and reputation as a mainstream TV funnyman-dissenter in the digital-media era. But the same nudge-wink inclusiveness that works as TV current affairs satire deprives Rosewater of the exact urgency, gravitas and outrage it needs to function as political drama. In the same way that Bernal’s Bahari reassures us that we’re on the side of right and right will win, the film’s rather timid depiction of the torture process – this is no Zero Dark Thirty, or even Homeland – puts even more distance between us and any strong sense of danger. It’s a movie made for people who prefer to take their politics while sitting on the couch.
Because it steers so carefully clear of intensity, offence and outrage, Rosewater never fully settles into a single gravitational orbit, dividing its attention between the drama unfolding behind prison walls – where a blindfolded Bahari maintains a good-natured jocularity – and the viral surge in digital democracy sweeping the globe outside. A tougher filmmaker than Stewart might have more fearlessly probed the former (and exploited the marvellously menacing Bodnia) or satirically skewered the pretensions of the latter. But Rosewater is far too eager to please to play tough.
If there’s a single scene that captures the up-with-people buoyancy of Stewart’s vision, it’s one in which Bahari dances madly in his cell to Leonard Cohen, his every daft move observed by his frustrated captors on a surveillance monitor. It’s as kooky a vision of the unchained human spirit as any you’ll see, and naturally, it’s played with a completely straight face.Report Typo/Error
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