“Rosewater” follows the ordeal of Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was accused of espionage, tortured and imprisoned for 118 days by the Iranian government, which cited his appearance on the “Daily Show” as evidence of his guilt.
The incident prompted “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart to write and direct the movie, adapting Bahari's memoir “Then They Came for Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival.” While hardly harrowing, the 2009-set film is an intelligent, absorbing psychological and political drama.
London-based Newsweek reporter Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) arrives in his native Iran to cover the elections between hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Bahari hires a driver (Dimitri Leonidas) and conducts interviews. When Ahmadinejad is declared landslide winner, protesters vehemently take to the streets. Soldiers massacre demonstrators. Bahari documents the goings-on.
Bahari is arrested and accused of spying for the CIA, Mossad, and, that's right, Newsweek. He is placed in solitary and grilled and tortured by a bearded “specialist” (Kim Bodnia). The interrogator points to Bahari's “Daily Show” appearance, which features Stewart associate Jason Jones in obviously satirical mode, as an indicator of Bahari's guilt, among other ridiculousness.
Eventually, a drained Bahari, unconvincingly, reads a forced confession on TV. Efforts waged by his pregnant wife (Claire Foy), Hillary Clinton and others lead to his release.
Compared to journalists whose work led to horrific fates detailed in recent news stories, Bahari isn't the most compelling example of a reporter at risk. And Stewart can reap only so much tension from what is largely a two-man show with the drama coming mostly from interrogations.
Scenes in which Bahari derives strength from advice given by visions of his dead father and sister, each jailed by a previous regime, aren't believable. But Stewart counters such shortcomings with humor and further examination of important, relevant themes.
When the interrogator asks Bahari absurd questions – Why did Bahari visit New Jersey? Why does Bahari “like” the Anton Chekhov fan page on Facebook? – it's both funny and sad. Stewart wisely doesn't treat his characters as villains. The interrogator is presented as a product of an oppressive system.
And a rooftop filled with young people and illegal satellite dishes makes for a stirring picture of the unstoppable desire for information.
Though it takes awhile to buy Bernal, who is Mexican, as an Iranian, he credibly conveys Bahari's unraveling and underlying courage. His charisma offsets some of Stewart's directorial stodginess. And even though the “Daily Show” host shouldn't give up his day job as a result of this debut, he hits more than misses in a film about one man's trials and the risky, crucial work journalists do.
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas, Claire Foy
Written and directed by: Jon Stewart
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes