Perhaps I am dead inside but I can’t scrub free the feeling that Coco hits all the right notes but still feels like the same old song. Pixar, the studio responsible for such masterpieces of modern animation as Wall-E, Toy Story, Up and Monsters Inc., appears more than ever to have sold out, peddling mediocre stories lathered in an admittedly marvelous coat of digital paint. We all knew this day was coming at some point, Disney’s acquisition of the once smallish, creatively independent studio renowned for delivering one stunner after another a warning sign of impending doom. I remember an age where I used to anticipate a new Pixar film just as much as a new Batman film. My how the times have changed. Pixar has quite simply become formulaic and Coco, while charming, loaded with delightful music and animated with the immaculate medium-pressing precision that Pixar is known for, just feels rote.
Jon Stewart‘s directorial cinematic debut is appropriately politically astute but throws his signature satirical edge out the window, resulting in a competently made, educationally sound – if not entirely entertaining – biopic. But such can be expected from a filmmaker who’s primary goal seems to be to shine a light into a dark place and report back on what he finds. That Rosewater lacks excitement in its followthrough is a misgiving worth forgiving in the face of strong performances and sound directorial spirit but you can’t help but wish the energy of the first half stretched through the later half’s long, tepid prison stay.
Longtime “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart tells the true story of Iranian-Canandian Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek political reporter falsely incarcerated in Iran’s Evin Prison for 118 days under suspicion of espionage. The story is told with care and precision by Stewart, making for an all around safe debut from a “reporter” noted more for his bitingly satirical comedy than his on-the-nose reporting. In all accounts, Stewart edifies us, relishing the minute details of the story and blowing them up into elements of larger import, but the material from which he’s working makes that process of expansion akin to blowing a 4×6 into a poster. He shots for specificity but loses it amongst an almost cliche prison tale.
The film opens on Bahari’s arrest, with a troop of Iranian policemen storming through his family house in Tehran and looting through his personal belongings like human paper shredders. From DVD bootlegs of The Sopranos to old Jazz records, these secretive Iranian officers are quick to label each and everything Bahari possesses as pornographic. When they discover a Maxim magazine, Bahari is willing to admit, “Ok, maybe that one is.” Soft chuckles ensue. The few instances of subtle humor are far from the side-splitting stuff of Stewart’s sharp “Daily Show” satire but even these moments are mistakenly few and far between. When held up against similar true life imprisonment stories, Rosewater can barely hold a candle to the type of enduring trauma of, say, Midnight Express and without a honed sense of political irony (perhaps Stewart’s most cherished aspect as a tv personality) it feels like it has too little of a personality of its own.
Going back in time to give more of an overview of the events that led to Bahari’s arrest, Stewart’s screenplay – based on Bahari’s memoirs “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival” -introduces us to a small platter of supporting characters that will invite minor shifts in the narrative to come. Bahari’s traditionalist and seeming nihilist mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo), personal driver and underground political activist Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) and wife Paolo (Claire Foy) each provide a different fulcrum point upon which Bahari’s mental state will balance while jailed; each representing one of the three elements that his book is named after. We see the pull of love, of honor, of survival all play on Bahari’s mind and can’t help but retreat from him slightly when he makes what some would deem the “cowardly” choice.
As a screenwriter and director, Stewart wastes little time getting into the politics of the piece, allowing Bahari’s coverage of the controversial 2009 presidential election between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir-Hossein Mousavi to guide us towards a deeper understanding of an “old news” hot topic. Shortly after capturing stirring protest footage and releasing it to the world media under an anonymous title, Bahari is identified by the Iranian government and taken with extreme prejudice into the confides of military solitary confinement. It’s in this cell that we spend the later half of the film. While Bahari receives massive media coverage in the United States, with government officials as high up as then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding Bahari’s just return, he festers in the concrete belly of an Iranian prison. It’s here that his soul is tested and the film stagnates.
As Bahari, Gael Garcia Bernal creates a character worth caring for. Stacked with charisma, charm and intelligence, Bahari’s imprisonment is unequivocally wrong but Stewart’s real interest lies not in condemning but quantifying the how of it all. In such, the intrigue of the film lies in how Stewart deals with the two sides of this coin. On the other side of the equation is a man known only as “The Specialist” (Kim Bodnia) – later nicknamed “Rosewater” – an Iranian interrogator with limited understanding outside the Muslim political state stuck on the notion Bahari is an American spy who’s infiltrated Iran and plans to disseminate disquieting information.
When Bahari finally counters with details of the “vices” of the Western world – particularly the many pleasures of the massage parlor – Bodnia’s taken aback reaction again taps into Stewart’s comedic sensibilities and the film thrives. When Stewart dips into the metaphysical level and Bahari’s deceased father makes a number of wisdom-laden appearances, the film suffers. As for the whole reporter/spy vs. specialist/massage parlor obsessive, the chemistry between these two inherently opposing forces at one point threatens to become uncommonly personal but still never reaches into a realm beyond that which we’ve seen a number of times before.
Furthermore, the “brutality” to which Bahari is subjected isn’t a kind that necessarily works well on screen. His torture is one of relentless boredom and unfortunately, we laterally become a victim of this too. Seeing that Bahari’s incarceration and subsequent “brutal interrogation” falls squarely on the side of mental degradation and involves practically no physical harm makes for material that isn’t as necessarily as jarring or visceral as it seems to think it is. Please don’t take me incorrectly here, I have no doubt that rotting away in a jail cell for nearly four months would undoubtedly be torture. I just don’t find it necessarily compelling on film. You likely won’t either.
Thankfully, Bernal is up to the challenge and emotes wickedly even when blindfolded and pacing his calcified cage. Though Stewart’s screenplay often mistakes adversity for inherent drama, Bernal is there to make sure that his character’s arc is as rock solid as prison walls sealing him away from the world and his family. Though not the sinfully funny, culturally smarmy debut that one would hope for with Stewart mounting the director’s chair, Rosewater is a perfect History class film; an educational and well acted showcase of media tragedy ballooning into a thoughtful and humanizing story.