I like The Daily Show. I like Jon Stewart. I like political commentary and political satire. So why is it that I don’t really like Rosewater, the political film directed by Jon Stewart of Daily Show fame. Well, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it’s because the film reminds me of American Sniper. Yep. I’m comparing a film beloved by conservative masses to a film made by one of the most optimistically liberal voices in media today. And while Stewart’s directorial debut isn’t quite as lifeless and drab as Clint Eastwood’s latest, it suffers from many of the same issues, most notably a lack of narrative drive or a compelling protagonist.
To those unfamiliar with the story of Maziar Bahari, he was a journalist for Newsweek magazine who covered the Iranian elections in 2009. After filming riots in the streets following the election, Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government and accused of being an American spy seeking to discredit the Iranian government. He was then psychologically tortured for four months, until a social media campaign forced the Iranian government to release him or risk losing face.
To the film’s credit, Bahari’s story has a bit more of a through line than Chris Kyle’s, as Bahari has a definitive antagonist in the form of his warden and torturer, and his journey to find strength is at least salvageable from the emotional nullity the film has to offer. However, the film allocates its time and resources much too heavily toward Bahari’s time spent in his cell, oddly hallucinating family members who tell him to keep to his convictions. The torture scenes lack any sort of passion to make them engaging, and Bahari’s true savior, the media campaign for his release, feels like a deus ex machina footnote at the end of a barely existent character arc.
Jon Stewart’s personal politics are no big secret, and yet he seems to have so visibly restrained himself in the course of making Rosewater that the film has no political drive until the film’s final shots, and that is too little too late. The final shots tell us that there are still people working within Iran to expose the injustices of their government, but that revolution is unseen and forgotten after the first act, making that ending seem tacked on and out of place in light of the survivor story we just witnessed. And the beginning of the film shows a lot of promise in that respect, demonstrating how the Iranian government represses free speech and the underground forces who seek to spread the word about the country’s internal injustices. However, almost all of this is eliminated once Bahari is imprisoned, paradoxically making Bahari a stronger character for finally having an arc, yet robbing the film of its sense of purpose.
Rosewater feels like a film I should like, but I simply can’t get behind the notion that simply recounting true events makes for good filmmaking. Jon Stewart is an intelligent man who likely has a bright career ahead of him, hopefully making more films, because the potential for greatness is definitely here. However, in removing a political voice for the majority of the film’s runtime, from events that are inherently political, the film ends up feeling pointless as a work of fiction. Much like American Sniper, Rosewater feels like it would have been better presented as a documentary, because without a stronger character focus and a more emotionally driven narrative, the whole production feels more than a little stale and lifeless.
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