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When Heroes Falter: A Review Of Jon Stewart's 'Rosewater'

By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 12, 2014 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | October 12, 2014 |

No one likes to see their heroes fail. But Jon Stewart’s debut feature film, a reconstruction of the detention and torture of the journalist Maziar Bahari by government officials after his coverage of the rigged Iranian elections in 2009, falls sadly short on almost every one of the goals that it sets itself.

When the action opens with a flashback to religious rituals in Bahari’s childhood, there is already an oddly pious accent to the film, which is created by a reverent voice-over and hazy visuals, as the Islamic rite of pouring rosewater over worshippers is explained to the audience. The film then flashes forward to the moment when government heavies come to arrest Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) and take him away on charges of espionage. These scenes already jar with the film’s opening, and kind of jar with themselves: there is a strange lack of authorial tone, a want of pacing, that makes the film seem already quite thin. We are clearly supposed to feel appalled by the intrusion into Bahari’s life, but the events aren’t filmed starkly or excitingly enough, so the audience finds itself always waiting to experience an actual jolt. We are also clearly meant to be amused by the sanctimonious ignorance of the officials who angrily ask Bahari if his DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ is pornographic material: but the comedy somehow doesn’t land, because the filming is too tasteful, the editing too slow, the acting too faltering.

From here the film flashes back to the events leading up to Bahari’s arrest: his work in London and domestic life with his adoring (sorry, simpering) pregnant wife; his journey to Iran to cover the elections and his encounter with anti-Ahmadinejad activists; finally, the election and post-electoral rioting which he witnesses and films. Throughout all of this, Jon Stewart’s camera adopts its trademark ‘eh?’ tone, which wobbles wildly between a sanctimonious attitude towards journalism and a botched attempt at breezy comedy. The problem seems to be that Stewart struggles, in his writing, to give his characters a lived-in, fully fledged voice of their own. When his own voice as a political commentator is so vivid and unique, with his enjoyment of ironies, his towering anger and icy scathingness, it is no wonder that his characters fail to register a personality of their own. Bahari’s wife is: the wife. His weeping mother is: the weeping mother. Bahari himself feels like a blank character: he has to be, in the scenes where he is an observer of the political events unfolding in Iran, but this lack of colour in Stewart’s sketching of him becomes a problem when he has been imprisoned and is being tortured and we are supposed to feel tormented by his plight.

Gael Garia Bernal is a gifted actor and a compelling presence, but his appearance in the film is unfortunately reminiscent of another, recent, better film in which he observed a corrupt election: Pablo Larrain’s No, about the 1988 elections in Chile that deposed Pinochet. That film had an easy liveliness to it, meshed its real footage with its fictionalised elements much more seamlessly than Stewart does, and had a real aesthetic of its own, drawing on 80s video with old, yellowing colours. Stewart has no aesthetic of his own: the film feels like tasteful TV. At times Stewart tries to bolster the action with a visual finding or set-piece, but these are almost always wrong-headed or dreary, such as the way he has Twitter comments light up buildings all over Tehran, or an early scene in which Bahari’s family appear in the windows of shops he walks past. These don’t feel like the stylings of a master, but like the will-this-do compensation tactics of someone whose film is lacking in visual whoomph.

These technical difficulties and the tedium they inspire in the viewer would be less problematic if the film’s politics weren’t also compromised. But Stewart’s choice to cast a Hispanic actor as an Iranian man and his decision to have everyone in the film speak to each other in heavily accented English, means that his film also suffers from a patronising Westernism that detracts from his message about political freedoms. At the end of the film when Bahari has been released, he mentions other people more important than him, who have suffered far more: it’s sad, then, that Stewart never fleshes out these other characters, never glimpses into the difficulties and pains of their existence. This top-down perspective gives the film a cloying imbalance, a preachiness, that leaves a sour taste in the mouth long after the memories of the aching boredom of watching it have started to fade.

Caspar Salmon lives in London. You can follow him on Twitter, where he’s tweeting about the London Film Festival.

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