With Rosewater, we can officially look at Jon Stewart not just as a satirical newsman/humorist, but as a legitimate filmmaker as well. This is a very strongly made and often moving look at the sacrifices that journalists make in order to bear witness to changing times/revolution. Stewart sets out to chronicle the real life tale of Maziar Bahari, a journalist who was taken prisoner in Iran after an appearance on The Daily Show, and he does it quite well too. If you didn’t know going in, you’d have no idea that Rosewater was made by Stewart, but if you’re already aware, you can definitely see his unique perspective shining through. It doesn’t hurt that lead Gael Garcia Bernal is terrific here, giving life to a character that obviously is very much based on the Bahari, but also is just so appealingly cinematic as well. If every so often the film is a bit on the nose with its message, it balances that with absurd humor and unexpected beauty. Rosewater is a movie that manages to be an Oscar hopeful/passion project that actually feels like it was something that needs to be told. It’s certainly one of the better films of 2014 so far, hovering somewhere around my top fifteen. That’s no small achievement, so kudos to Stewart and company here for what they’ve crafted. The product on display is a more than worthwhile cinematic endeavor. The Academy may or may not notice it in the end, but that’s almost besides the point with this one.
After an opening meant to give you a bit of a feel for what’s to come, we’re dropped in with journalist Maziar Bahari (Bernal), who’s leaving his pregnant wife Paola (Claire Foy) to return to his home country of Iran to cover the impending elections. He stays with his mother Moloojoon (Shohreh Aghdashloo) but quickly is off to cover the potential upheaval in the land. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is up for re-election and many of the young Iranians in the street feel that his opponent will win, though Ahmadinejad is victorious in a controversial vote count. While following these events, Bahari gives an interview to The Daily Show (with Jason Jones playing himself) where they pretend to be spies, essentially, something that will come back to haunt him. Before long, the Revolutionary Guard have come for him at his mother’s home and imprisoned him, claiming that he actually is a spy for the West, and essentially that all journalists are. Bahari is blindfolded, interrogated, and tortured, never seeing his tormentor (Kim Bodnia), but only smelling him and the rosewater cologne he wears. Much like his father and sister before him, Bahari was a political prisoner. Those with a working knowledge of current events know what ultimately happened, but throughout the ordeal, we watch as Bahari struggles to keep hope alive.
In many ways, this is the Gael Garcia Bernal show, and he doesn’t disappoint one bit. Given a juicier role than he’s had in some time, he dives right in and creates a three dimensional person who you want to root for Bernal is charming, determined, and a perfect everyman here, albeit an heroic one. It’s a challenging role, one that Bernal is more than up for. He’s clearly the heart and soul of the movie, without question. One of the other really noteworthy performances in Rosewater is from Shohreh Aghdashloo, who makes the most of her scenes as a strong willed woman. Her scenes with Bernal are quite good. Kim Bodnia does a very solid job mixing menace and ignorance in a way that makes his character both scary and also sort of pitiful. That trio gets the most to do, though the film also features the aforementioned Claire Foy and the Jason Jones cameo, along with the likes of Golshifteh Farahani (playing Bahari’s sister in flashbacks). They’re all solid, but Aghdashloo, Bernal, and Bodnia are the best of the bunch, with Bernal especially doing noteworthy work.
In making the transition to filmmaking, Jon Stewart has made sure that there’s nothing here to take the focus off of the story and on to him. As such, the directing is low-key, with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and editor Jay Rabinowitz keeping things smooth and beautiful without getting overtly stylish. The writing is quite strong though, with Stewart successfully adapting Bahari’s book (which he co-wrote with Aimee Molloy) into something that’s often captivating. Certain scenes are a bit longer than necessary and others breeze by quicker than would have been ideal, but the pacing is mostly consistent and my quibbles are few and far between.
Looking at the awards possibilities, it all depends on if voters take to it or not. The powerful but not especially overwhelming drama could help attract older voters. I’d say that the film is hovering around the Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay races. In all likelihood, Stewart is a long shot for Best Director, while Bernal would be more in play for Best Actor in a different year. I don’t see Aghdashloo making a play in Best Supporting Actress, but anything is possible. My guess is that outside of potentially Picture, Adapted Screenplay is where Rosewater might show up at the Oscars.
Overall, Rosewater is a very powerful and often touching look at an inspiring true story, mixing in some deft humor and a message about the importance of journalism that will certainly resonate. Stewart has established himself here as someone very capable of crafting successful cinema, so if he chooses to get behind the camera again, it’ll be something to really look forward to. Between his script and Bernal’s performance, there’s plenty here to admire. Don’t miss Rosewater folks.
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