Maziar Bahari is a hero to me. I’m not much for heroes, heroism, folks who wrap themselves in flags or blind obedience in the name of the People’s Will as posited by any politician. Yet Bahari’s ‘life initiates art/art imitates life’ story really moved me. Bahari was arrested in Tehran in June 2009 as he chronicled Iran’s Presidential election. It was, according to the Persian Secret Service thugs who arrested him, the result of a Daily Show comedy sketch. In it, a comedian, Jason Jones, posing as a sleazy, über-stereotypical ugly American sort of ‘reporter’ in a pair of wraparound shades and a keffiyeh, interviewed the real Bahari, a Canadian citizen of Iranian extraction working as a correspondent for Newsweek in a cosmopolitan-type café just after he had broadcast a report about the upcoming election in anticipation of much societal flux.
“Why is Iran so evil?” Jones asks Bahari as part of a Da-Da-esque joke. A poker-faced straight-man with enough of a sense of irony to channel Bud Abbot and Dean Martin, Bahari gives a careful, clever response that negotiating with Iranians is impossible for Americans. “Americans are idiots,” he says. It is a moment of droll, dry wit, but the Iranian authorities didn’t see it that way, arresting him after the election, four days after the episode aired in the U.S., using The Daily Show as ‘proof ‘ that Bahari himself was a spy.
Thus, partly perhaps out of a process partially begun in a state of guilt, and partially because this is just a fantastic story, the Daily Show’s host, Jon Stewart, a comedian and social satirist, strayed from the autobiographical and made his directorial film debut, based on Bahari’s 2011 book, Then They Came for Me, which was adapted by Stewart himself. Rosewater is a fine piece of work.
Rosewater is not a run-of-the mill first picture. There’s an almost Chekhovian, super-simple seriousness side-by-side with more than a few laughs. We meet Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal) as he leaves behind his pregnant wife in London for what is defined as a kind of shruggably anodyne assignment covering the elections in his hometown of Tehran. Upon arrival he’s seen as an upper-class expatriate, a star correspondent for the shiny American magazine, Newsweek, who hires a trendy upper-class youth, Davood (Dimitri Leonidas), as a guide.
Davood is in the know. He hooks Bahari up with supporters of the liberal Presidential candidate Seyyed Mir-Hossein Khameneh Mousavi, whom these very good-looking, privileged young people adore, although it’s never quite explained why. They are wary of the secret police, yet fearless enough to clandestinely set up a nest of satellite dishes they humorously refer to as ‘Dish University.’ These dishes educate them, they say, in the methodology of free speech.
Bahari meets with Jones (as himself) in a café and it seems to be an innocuous moment. Meanwhile, the election result spawns some hard-core violence, some of which Bahari captures on camera. At this moment it’s kind of hard to believe that Bahari is unaware of the danger he finds himself in. Indeed, his state of mind becomes all the tougher to swallow when we learn from his mother, Shohrah Aghdashloo, that both Bahari’s sister and father spent time in prison under previous ruling regimes. Naïve or masochistic, or both, Baharii seems arrogant, owning an attitude of someone above the fray until he meets his match in the regime’s grand interrogator, Rosewater (Kim Bodnia).
Up till then it’s window dressing. Now the real movie begins! Genuinely convinced that Newsweek is a spy organization, Bahari is routinely quizzed and beaten by Rosewater. His refusal to cooperate leads to solitary confinement. At one point, he’s even led to believe he’s going to be killed. From then on, Bahari is rendered bereft of his arrogance.
In spite of the criticism that Stewart didn’t cast a real Iranian in the lead, Bernal does a subtle, haughty, well-measured job as Bahari. His war with his truculent, buttoned-down fanatic interrogator, Mr. Rosewater, is a mix of absurdist comedy and wince-inducing brutality. Bahari understands, however, that his jailers are so devoted to Islam and the Islamic state that any explanation as to what pop music, Tintin and ballet he gives as a representative of an inexplicable culture mean, it’s all meaningless. This may sound spurious, but if there’s one thing successful stand-up comedians own it’s a tenacity forged performing in front of jaded and sometimes brutally negative heckle-happy audiences. The directorial sweet-nothings Stewart whispered in García-Barnal’s ear worked wonders.