While covering the 2009 Iranian elections for Newsweek Maziar Bahari filmed protests and conducted a spoof interview with The Daily Show in which Jason Jones pretended to be an American spy. These two acts combined led the Iranian government to arrest Maziar and hold him captive until he would admit to being a Western spy. Perhaps as recompense for his tangential involvement in Maziar’s arrest The Daily Show host Jon Stewart has written and directed this dramatisation of the events leading up to his capture and the interrogation he endured while imprisoned.
Initially intending to be gone for little over a week Maziar (Gael García Bernal) leaves his pregnant wife behind in England and stays with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) in Iran. There he hires a local man to be his driver and after interviewing campaigners for the incumbent his driver introduces him to the members of the public looking for a new regime. After the election Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintains his seat amid rumours of corruption and a rigged election and Maziar finds himself filming the resulting riots. Shortly after sending his footage back to the UK for broadcast Maziar is arrested for espionage and threatened with leaving his wife a widow if he does not confess to crimes he did not commit.
For the most part Maziar is left in solitary confinement and is kept company by hallucinations of his deceased father and sister. The only real human contact Maziar has during his captivity is with his interrogator (Kim Bodnia) who uses mostly non-violent techniques to coax a confession out of the captive. Over months a distrustful relationship builds between Maziar and the specialist grows as they try to figure one another out and say what is needed to appease the authorities.
Jon Stewart uses his expansive knowledge of international politics to make the situation in Iran understandable to a potentially ignorant audience and exercises his comedic muscles to inject the script with enough humour to make extended scenes of confinement and captivity enjoyable. As a debut director Stewart has also made an effort with the film’s visuals occasionally breaking away from the standard format to display flashbacks and social media in a unique visual style. The film also experiments with sound design especially when dealing with Maziar’s daydreams in his cell. Ultimately though Stewart has managed to find the heart in the story and present Maziar as a rounded human doing the best he can in trying circumstances.
Maziar’s captivity was long and tortuous and at times the film feels claustrophobic as the same two small rooms make up the bulk of the set once he has been captured. While necessary to help represent the reality of Maziar’s life during his ordeal this sequence could have become tedious but Rosewater maintains its energy by using the interrogation sessions to explore Maziar’s character and past, to explore the state of Iran’s government during this period of recent history, and also to unpick the motivations and fears of those holding him captive.
Rosewater is a relatively simple film made on a modest budget by those passionate about telling this story. Set in such a recent period I recognised images from the news and the film felt vital and real as a result. The film is an education in foreign politics and a lesson in how lucky we are to live in a real democracy. More than anything Rosewater is the story of a man trying to stay sane in extended captivity in the hopes of returning home to be with his pregnant wife before she gives birth. In an understated fashion Jon Stewart has made an impressive and important film with wit, intelligence, and heart.
Maybe Rosewater isn’t perfect but it is one hell of a film.
Rosewater is in UK cinemas now.