Jon Stewart is a very ambitious man. Obviously most well-known for The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Stewart conducted ongoing reports of the story about journalist Maziar Bahari, who was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2009 for witnessing truth during and after the official elections. So invested was Stewart in this story (he is a pretty smart guy), he decided to make a film inspired by the real-life events dictated in Bahari’s memoir And Then They Came for Me. The result is a well-told and driven story that is layered with depth and a mature awareness of the topic at hand.

In 2009, the Iranian elections were a big deal. There was a lot of hubbub about the situation, about who the people would elect, the opposing sides debating and the people were separated. They were on the verge of another revolution and Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) was in the midst of it after being called by his publication to go to Iran and cover the elections.

While there, he’s shown around by Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), who takes Bahari around to see the other side of the vote, the youth uprising and how they’re fighting for their freedoms and other issues. Bahari’s family has their own history with the Iranian government, his father (Haluk Binginer) and sister Maryam (Golshifteh Farahani) having been imprisoned for their views against the government.

After witnessing a protest after the elections and being there to catch it on camera, Bahari is imprisoned for 118 days and beaten, verbally assaulted, and left in solitary confinement, where he is interrogated by “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia), named by Bahari for his scent, and charged with espionage and then moral corruption.

Stewart directs with a deft hand. For his first major feature film, you can’t really tell that it is, technically speaking. He expresses the story in a way that pulls viewers in and invites them to be a part of what’s going on. He does this by making the very layered and complicated history of Iran simple enough for anyone unfamiliar with it to understand.

There is a particularly well-directed scene when Bahari is explaining his sister, their relationship, and her history with the Iranian government, and instead of creating a flashback scene, Stewart uses a different and more creative tactic — that of using images of Maryam as a street wall background as Bahari is walking down a city block. Very nice touch.

The story is touching and what’s fantastic about it is that it doesn’t make Iran or Iranians out to be evil incarnate, but rather humanizes them even though it isn’t particularly agreeing with their motives or tactics. It shows us their side and also how they are a product of their system, like everyone is. The man who goes by “Rosewater,” especially. He’s portrayed as mean and harsh, but on the opposite side of the spectrum, alone and lonely. So there isn’t a black and white, but a very gray area throughout, in terms of the system and Bahari’s interrogator.

Once Bahari is imprisoned, the film does struggle a bit in keeping its momentum. Mostly this is a problem in comparison to the flutter of activity throughout the first quarter of the film, where Bahari’s initial surroundings could have been explored more and the background story expanded a bit. Bahari’s imprisonment lasted 118 days, so some of the prison material does get a bit repetitive, though it doesn’t really bring down the overall film.

The film’s tone hovers between being a drama all while trying to keep a sense of humor, which is not unlike the book upon which it is based. It’s not a torture film that’s hard to watch because it’s still hopeful and has its humorous moments, which will genuinely make you laugh (see the “massage” scene near the end of the film). Jon Stewart balances the drama but shies away from making it too dark and keeps the story very personal.

The film’s message is clear. It’s about Bahari, but also pays homage to all the many who are or who have been in his position. In seeking truth, one often gets overpowered by political and social systems, but the hope and will are there. Rosewater isn’t out to make anyone look bad, unlike many of Hollywood’s films are wont to do, but it gives us humanity at its best and worst and offers us insight into a real-life experience that doesn’t particularyly play hero vs. bad guy. Bahari’s story is well relayed onscreen and Jon Stewart’s potential as a director and screenwriter is in full bloom.

 

Release Date: November 14, 2014 | Director and Screenwriter: Jon Stewart | Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Golshifteh Farahani, Haluk Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Claire Foy, Nsser Faris | Genre: Drama | MPAA Rating: R for language including some crude references and violent content

 

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About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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