It's not a complete surprise that a man like Jon Stewart, who lives his life surrounded by the evils of the world, the hypocrisies and the injustices, would take his first venture into feature filmmaking by telling the story of a journalist imprisoned by the Iranian government for baring witness to violence, to riots, to reactions to the Iranian election of 2009. What is surprising, however, is how complete Rosewater feels. Stewart is at an insanely high point in his career, but even so to step out of the realm of daily satirical news programming and into serious feature filmmaking, things could have gone so wrong so frequently. Rosewater is a great film, truly.
Mostly the film is a one man show, as Gael Garcia Bernal plays Mazia Bahari, the journalist who worked for Newsweek, Channel 4, the BBC and other reputable outlets, takes to Iran to film the build up to the Iranian elections, and the on-the-street reactions to Ahmadinejad's supporters/opponents, but after the election ends, and Iran becomes a boiling kettle, fuelled by social media, Bahari is picked up and taken away, interrogated and tortured mentally over claims of him being a spy, part of a media attempt to spread lies about their leader and turn the population against it for the West's own doing. Bahari spends a lot of time in a concrete cell, with very little light, and then some time blindfold on in an office. That is his life, as the days turn to weeks to months. Bahari faces his own sanity as he begins to spark up a conversation with a figment of his father, who was also imprisoned, and at points begins to lose all hope.
Through all the artistic elements and decides to find Bahari without having him interact with his torturers all the time, Stewart brings in his family to emphasise the plight of anyone searching for freedoms, but perhaps the strangest thing in the film is that despite all of this, the sense of the human drama never connects as well as the social injustice element and the honest-to-goodness humour that helps make some segments palatable and bring in Bahari's mindset at different moments. It is a shame that ultimately come the third act there's not much of a fist-punching tear-jerking feeling after everything we've witnessed, no matter what is shown we perhaps are just the voyeurs, and will never feel any close connection with Bahari's story because we just will never know what anything like that is like. But Rosewater, beyond that element, is fantastic work, stylistically subtle yet just cool enough to be showy, funny, dark, witty and well written. An excellent debut that almost always succeeds at telling a brutal but whispered story without needing to bring in the big dogs to get messages and ideas across.