Sometimes the media only seems capable of saturating our vision with celebrity butt pictures. Other times it can use its omnipresence to save the life of an imprisoned journalist. Rosewater is a movie that wants us to remember the second model, and by extension do all we can to continue recording and hashtagging our way through injustice and oppression. This appeal likely won’t surprise many of us who have already witnessed the overwhelming power of Internet activism in recent events like the crisis in Ferguson, MO, but rookie director Jon Stewart nonetheless finds a resonant way to impress upon us the potential power of our voices in a film that makes us recoil, reflect, and ultimately laugh at the farcical attempts to repress them.
Adapted from Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me, the film follows the Iranian-born journalist as he heads off to cover the 2009 Iranian presidential election, in which the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated the independent reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi in a landslide victory. Many Iranians were outraged at the suspiciously one-sided results, and soon riots broke out throughout the country. In the film, Bahari bears witness to one of these protests, and with shaky determination decides to film the demonstration, which quickly turns violent. In the days after, he’s taken captive by government officials and placed in prison for 118 days, during which he’s interrogated as an enemy spy. One piece of evidence used against him is a segment from The Daily Show in which he portrays a US spy alongside actor Jason Jones.
It doesn’t take a comedy show host to see the humor in that last bit. It does, however, take a skilled director to make sure the humor doesn’t overshadow the very real conflict. Both in terms of humor and politics, Stewart shows off some impressive managerial skills as he juggles the various challenges to Rosewater‘s balance. No doubt his tenure on Comedy Central has prepped him for walking the fine line between humor and earnestness. Stewart gives us a few awkward moments to release tension and chuckle at the ludicrous interrogation situations. Though some are funnier than others (a sequence involving DVDs and porn jokes was a bit too forceful with the humor so early on), they’re largely effective because they serve the film’s overall purpose. We laugh because these situations are so preposterously far from being humane.
The first section of the film plays like a self-conscious travelogue. As Bahari arrives in Tehran, a cab driver outside the airport hails him over with enthusiastic praise for the city. “You can relax, I’m from here.” Bahari says. The cabbie understands. No deception needed. Later, the cab driver informs Bahari and us that a motorcycle is the only way to get around town in the crowded city streets. We’re treated as insiders in this film, and we appreciate it, even if these Iran 101 factoids feel forced.
The second section, involving the captivity and interrogation, is where Stewart proves his directorial chops. This is a movie that does not show gore or extreme physical torture, as we might expect these days. Instead, we are made to identify with Bahari’s suffering simply through circumstance. We know Bahari is not a spy. We also know his captors face pressure from higher-ups to get Bahari to confess otherwise. Stewart trusts the dramatic weight of this conflict and lets it play out as is. This trust extends to the visual realm, where he opts for refreshingly hands-off, static shots from various corners of a given room. It’s always a close-quarters setting, but these shots give the scenes and actors space to breathe. That’s not to say Stewart doesn’t indulge in showy or suggestive style every now and then; in an early scene we see Bahari stroll down a sidewalk while news broadcasts, movies, and other media images pop up on the architecture behind him. But more often than not the more effective stylish flairs (like the occasional dialogue played plainly over shots of Bahari pacing in his cell) are the ones which don’t likewise hold captive our eyes and thoughts.
With the conflict left to its own devices, Stewart is able to focus on weighing in on the events instead of creating them. This moral goal is made easier by Rosewater‘s even-handed approach to its material. We see the government officials in their cruelest capacity, but they aren’t incomprehensible. Though Bahari faces ridiculous questions about his New Jersey travel habits, his favorite playwright on Facebook, and other topics which hardly prove any covert objectives, his interrogator defends the scrupulous tactics with a reminder that “media espionage” has happened before, and to Iran herself. In the 50s, he recalls, the American and British governments coordinated a coup d’état against the Iranian regime to protect their political and economic interests in the region. Part of this clandestine operation, we learn, involved the strategic use of media personnel to disseminate anti-regime sentiment and information. We’ve meddled once before, what’s stopping us from meddling again?
Finally, the film brings it on home with an awkward hint of triumph. Catharsis is necessary, but the film takes a second victory lap. It’s a confusing move because the film acknowledges the battle against repression has yet to be won, and because it has thus far respected the harsh realities of its issues. But this tonal confusion, which admittedly may not read for everyone, does little lasting harm to Stewart’s plea – to continue to mobilize our media, bring truth to the fore, and take advantage of the 21st century’s most efficient defense system. There are still many who face hardships beyond our perception and its digital extensions. As if we needed more reasons to tweet.