Put aside any thoughts you may have had that Rosewater shares the same satirical DNA as Jon Stewart's massively influential Daily Show, because the humorist's directing debut plays it a lot more safe than his reputation would suggest. Certainly not for lack of subject - the irony at the heart of the true story Mr. Stewart has adapted from the memoir by Iranian exile Maziar Bahari would certainly allow for it, and the film retains a surrealist, almost Kafkian patina that nearly demands a raised eyebrow. But, only too aware of how misunderstood humour can be, Mr. Stewart plays it straight out of an over-abundance of caution, framing the tale of Mr. Bahari's return to Teheran to report on the 2009 elections for Newsweek like a throwback to the classic American political cinema of the seventies.
His Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal, is a perfect archetype of the American film - the innately decent, honest man whose desire to "do the right thing" gets him in trouble with the establishment, in this case the Iranian authorities displeased that he has shot and uploaded pictures from the repression of the regime's goons on the "Green" supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi. Maziar finds himself locked in the infamous prison of Evian and subject to torture at the hands of interrogator Javadi (Kim Bodnia), tasked to make him confess he is in fact an undercover American spy.
That the main reason for this absurd accusation is an interview Bahari gave to... The Daily Show's "espionage correspondent" is the obvious explanation as to why Mr. Stewart decided to shoot his story straight, even if he can't resist underlining the obvious surrealism of the tale. In order to reiterate their total control over the Iranian system, the regime continues to hold on to a picture of the "abroad" that is at least 30 years behind the times and still believes that people, in a wired world like ours is, will gladly stick blindly to what they're given. Once he realises the nature of the game, Bahari starts twisting it in his favour by playing to Javadi's - and by extension the regime's - naïve fantasies of what the outside world is like.
The earnestness Mr. Stewart uses in telling his story makes it easy to overlook that this is not an American tale, but an Iranian tale, told "from the inside", without any condescension or alienation effects. That is actually what makes this a universal tale of resistance, especially because there is no grandstanding heroism involved, just a man caught playing a game that transcends him, used as a pawn. But it also gives Rosewater a subdued, been-here-before, borderline didactic tone that the two good ideas in the film's handling can't quite shake off.
One plays precisely into that earnestness - the decision to look at things through Maziar's eyes and let us feel how his hope ebbs away slowly before returning. The other - having him reason through his choices with the "ghosts" of his family members who were previously tortured in the same prison - is somewhat abandoned halfway through, even though the way Mr. Stewart plays it is one of the best and most intriguing things about the film. None of this detracts from the fact that Rosewater is an above-average directing debut that tells well an important story; but it lacks the spark that would have given it the urgency it demands.
Cast Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani
Director and screenwriter Jon Stewart; based on the memoir by Maziar Bahari Then They Came for Me; cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (colour); composer Howard Shore; designer Gerald Sullivan; costumes Phaedra Dahdaleh; editor Jay Rabinowitz; producers Scott Rudin, Mr. Stewart and Gigi Pritzker; production company Oddlot Entertainment
Screened December 16th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)