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Someone once said that everyone has a few shitty stories in them. Being a successful storyteller requires just getting the shitty ones out of your system, and then moving on to the good stuff. Rosewater, the first feature film Jon Stewart has ever written and directed, is definitely one of the comedian’s shitty stories. That said, in comparison to most shitty stories, it’s not half bad, which suggests if he keeps cranking he might have a genuine filmmaker inside him.

The impetus for the film was an odd confluence between Stewart’s work at The Daily Show and the bitterly contested Iranian election of 2009, which sparked massive protests in the country’s capital of Tehran. Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari had traveled to Tehran to cover the vote, and when the streets erupted after the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bahari was arrested by Iranian officials. The journalist had done one of those satirical interviews for The Daily Show just days beforehand, and based partially on it the Iranians concluded Bahari was a western spy. He spent 118 days in prison, much of it in solitary confinement, while being regularly interrogated and beaten. His memoir of the ordeal, “Then They Came for Me,” serves as the spine for Stewart’s screenplay.

So the comedian has an obvious personal investment in the material, which shines through. After arriving in Tehran, Bahari (Gael García Bernal) hires a local named Davood (Dimitri Leonidas) to ferry him around the city on his motorcycle. These early scenes, in which Bahari interviews both opponents and supporters of Ahmadinejad’s regime, and he and Davood zip around the city – often with lo-fi camera shots mounted right on the bike – are fun and well-paced. Later, Stewart illustrates the use of social media in the protests by with animated hashtags that shoot around Tehran’s cityscape, then edits hurtling montages of news reports after Bahari realizes he has not been forgotten by the outside world. Some of these choices work and some don’t, but Rosewater certainly doesn’t lack for verve.

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The character notes in the give and take of conversations are probably Rosewater’s greatest strength. Stewart nails the dry, halting conversation that cements the business relationship between Bahari and Davood: both are opponents of the regime, but they have to feel one another out first. Meanwhile, Bahari’s mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) has already lost a husband and a daughter to the quest to reform the Iranian regime, and as the elections go down and the violence starts, she hides her fear for her son’s safety behind a veil of political cynicism. Then there’s the Iranian who oversees Bahari’s interrogation, nicknamed “Rosewater” (Kim Bodnia), who proves to be a single-minded brute with no awareness of the wider world beyond the regime’s propaganda. He refers to every DVD Bahari owns as “porno,” wants to know why The Daily Show segment referred to Bahari as “a spy,” and is convinced Bahari’s references to Anton Chekhov on Facebook (“The playwrite?!”) hold some dark clue to Bahari’s collusion with anti-Iranian forces. Later, Bahari decides to screw with his tormenter by telling Rosewater tall tales about his sexual escapades at brothels around the world, and the war in the interrogator between disgust and prurient fascination is obvious.

The bizarre absurdism of how such a humorless and shallow man could hold such terrifying power is not lost on Stewart and his fellow filmmakers, and the performance by Bodnia is Rosewater’s best. The bright-eyed and iron-willed shill for the Ahmadinejad regime (Amir El-Masry) whom Bahari interviews is also particularly creepy.

Unfortunately, what’s lacking is the meat-and-potatoes of filmmaking. For instance, Stewart opens the film with Bahari’s arrest, then cuts to flashbacks of the journalist’s coverage of Tehran. This starts things with a bang, but also saps the story of momentum at the crucial and terrifying moment when the film catches back up to its timeline.

Much worse, however, is that Rosewater simply fails to establish its stakes. If you’re unaware of the movie’s backstory, you might not be aware that Bahari makes it out alive. But anyone going to see the film is likely to know of Stewart’s involvement, and lord knows the press for the film has not been coy on that front. So what is the struggle? Is it whether Bahari will escape without significant injury? Whether he’ll keep his sanity? Whether his family will be hurt? Whether he’ll knuckle under and give Rosewater the false confession he wants? The film never decides, which becomes a fatal problem with some of the plot developments in the second half. Rosewater doesn’t really reach any meaningful narrative climax. It just sort of ends.

It’s worth mentioning that, in line with his rather deracinated creative class center-left politics, Stewart doesn’t really call the Iranian regime to account for specific horrors or injustices. He seems to view the regime’s problem as cultural backwardness and a lack of enlightenment, rather than as a fundamental lack of human decency. Bahari himself is ever the laid-back, liberal, enlightened journalist, stunned that people could be so loutish, while the bohemian college kids who oppose Ahmadenijad refer to themselves as “the educated.” It introduces a weird hint of class arrogance to the film that almost makes you sympathize with Rosewater a bit.

Anyway, Stewart hits some good individual notes. And his cinematographer, editors, and actors back him up nicely. But he’s unable to lay down a working story structure – which, obviously, is the kind of craft-based skill filmmakers develop through time and experience. Perhaps Stewart will try again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jpAVB1JuMc
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