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November 14, 2014

If you’re a fan of The Daily Show, you’re probably well aware of the story behind host Jon Stewart taking up Rosewater as his feature writing and directing debut. They sent Jason Jones to Iran — as in, he actually went there, rather than using the show’s typical green-screen “location” gags — where he “interviewed” Iranian-born Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) amidst the contentious run-up to the 2009 elections. After the elections, Bahari was arrested and held in solitary confinement for four months under suspicion of espionage, as told in his memoir of the experience, Then They Came for Me.

While Stewart and The Daily Show weren’t the direct cause of Bahari’s imprisonment, the interview didn’t help his case, and Stewart clearly regrets even his indirect involvement. Still, he wisely keeps that part of the story to a minimum, letting us focus on Bahari’s interrogation, and the political situation that led up to his arrest.

Iran has a nominally democratically-elected President as head of government below the theocratic Supreme Leader. In 2009, hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was running for re-election against former prime minister and reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi. And though since overshadowed by the more tumultuous protests of the Arab Spring, it was far from quiet in Iran. Bahari traveled to Iran to report on the election for Newsweek, interviewing supporters of both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, though the film is clear in its support for the latter.

The election itself went strongly for Ahmadinejad, even in regions that had been polling strongly for Mousavi, leading to widespread accusations of tampering. Violent protests erupted, which Bahari recorded and broadcast widely outside Iran. Obviously, this displeased the government, so they decided to make an example of him, insisting that he confess to faking the reports as propaganda for the West.

Since Bahari spent most of the ordeal blindfolded, he could most readily identify his interrogator (Kim Bodnia) by the rosewater perfume he wore, though Stewart doesn’t quite make this point clear. He indulges in a few experiments here and there, like Bahari’s early reminiscences projected on the London buildings he walks past, but as neat as they can be, none of them really connect up very strongly with the story itself.

Still, the most important points are given plenty of emphasis. The Iranian government — and “Rosewater” as its representative — is shown as somewhat ridiculous and petulant. It behaves like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum, and it doesn’t care if it destroys someone’s life in the process. But this is to be distinguished from the Iranian people. Bahari’s driver, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), among many others is warm and kind, and he sees the folly in his government just as an American might; identifying the people with the administration just doesn’t work, and Stewart is careful to remind us of this.

Bahari survives his ordeal with memories of his father (Haluk Bilginer) and sister (Golshifteh Farahani), both of whom had been imprisoned. They give him perspective and strength, but they also stand as a reminder that Bahari’s treatment is far from unique, or even recent. Interrogating and torturing political prisoners has a disturbingly long and deep-seated history, and not just in Iran.

The Iranian government is a particularly easy target that it doesn’t take much for first-timer Stewart to nail. Even so, it’s good to see them taken down a notch. Under Stewart’s guidance, The Daily Show has been dedicated to giving the powers-that-be a good pantsing when they need it, and there are few targets who could benefit from a little humility and self-awareness more than this one.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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