Movies dominate the public consciousness. Sometimes, that power is used for good.
Rosewater tells the story of Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal), a journalist who was imprisoned for 118 days after covering the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which was widely believed to be rigged.
Writer/director/producer Jon Stewart has become one of the most powerful men in the world through a long career of thorough, hard-hitting journalism thinly disguised as entertainment. As with his other material, the real-life story is the most important part of Rosewater.
In June 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected to a second term as Iranian president with 60 percent of the vote. Ahmadinejad achieved widespread fame during his first term with his claims that the Holocaust was fabricated and consistent threats to obliterate Israel. The election is still disputed because of its widespread irregularities, including two provinces that recorded more than 100 percent voter turnout; Ahmadinejad, a conservative candidate, sweeping rural provinces that had been very anti-conservative since the mid-90s; and, in several provinces, the vote being so skewed in Ahmadinejad’s favor that he would have had to carry all conservative votes, all centrist votes, all new voters and still carried 44 percent of the reformist vote for the numbers to be accurate.
The Iranian people were pissed, and the government swiftly resorted to violent suppression. Bahari filmed and sent to his editors some of the first footage of the protests, and was taken to Evin Prison the next morning. This footage, as well as his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in which he talked to correspondent Jason Jones as if Jones were a spy, were used as evidence of Bahari spying for the CIA, MI6, Mossad and Newsweek Magazine, which he actually did work for but is not actually an intelligence agency. Bahari was beaten and put in solitary confinement for days at a time and forced to confess that he and other Western journalists worked as spies. He was eventually released after promising to spy on other countries for Iran, a promise he never intended on keeping.
Stewart was and remains friends with Bahari, and with his passion for accuracy, there’s no reason to believe this movie isn’t quite accurate to Bahari’s own account. The interrogator (Kim Bodnia), whom Bahari never saw but nicknamed “Mr. Rosewater” because he was always wearing the scent, is constantly spraying himself with the perfume. Bahari said he got himself through the ordeal by remembering Leonard Cohen songs and his late father, who was himself imprisoned for several years as a communist, and in the film Bahari has several literal conversations with his father (Haluk Bilginer). It gets confusing at times, but the movie does a great job of communicating what Bahari is thinking and feeling throughout his imprisonment.
Ultimately, the story is about Bahari’s triumph and eventual release, though it is dedicated to all journalists suffering Bahari’s fate.
Whether or not Bahari eventually took off his mask and danced in his prison cell is a dubious and important distinction. Did he eventually completely tune out his handlers as their antics became more and more ridiculous, or did he continue to acquiesce after his confession? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but that’s bad cinema. The real question is, which interpretation is more effective?
Stewart went with the hopeful path and creates an inspirational movie of perseverance and reason triumphing over ignorance and tyranny instead of a straight psychological horror. Better for a first time writer/director, but no one should think all imprisoned journalists are this faithful.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. My heart goes out to Ferguson and the black community as the U.S. experiences yet another round of race riots that will change nothing. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.