Considerably better than the vanity project one might have feared without being the great filmmaking debut one might have hoped for, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater very nearly soars for its first 20 or 30 minutes before settling rather too comfortably into the realm of the Perfectly Fine. On balance, what you end up with is a good movie straining to be a great one that never materializes. Of course, if you think Stewart can do no wrong, that assessment will almost certainly fall wide of the mark — much the way that those who think Stewart can do no right will find it wide of the mark in the other direction. As someone who shares Stewart’s political views most of the time, I also find him on the overbearing side, with a tendency to mug and drive everything into the ground until he’s sure even the dimmest bulb in the audience gets the point. Happily, there is nothing of this in Rosewater. Less happily, there’s ultimately a tendency to turn to Movie 101 clichés as a substitute. You win some, you lose some.
There’s a certain degree of uphill battle about making a film of an autobiographical account, since obviously the author of the account survived his ordeal. Working from Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy’s book, The They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, Stewart is immediately limited in the amount of genuine suspense he can generate — and he mostly seems to understand that and doesn’t go down that dead end too much. It’s more a question of how Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) survives than whether or not he will. That makes a lot of difference.
As noted, Rosewater starts out strongly. The opening where Bahari is arrested by the Irani police is beautifully staged with unexpected notes of absurdist humor — like a DVD of Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) being assessed as pornography. Better yet is the flashback that follows. Sure, it’s the necessary exposition that sets up the arrest and details the connection between Canadian journalist Bahari and the Bahari who grew up in Iran, but it’s good exposition that contains moments of something very like cinematic brilliance. The business of visions from Bahari’s past showing up on windows is very fine. For that matter, this entire section of the movie is solid and well-paced — and it effortlessly conveys how Bahari gets more and more drawn into the plight of his birth country. It is this being drawn in that leads to his arrest.
Unfortunately, once the film gets to Bahari’s imprisonment it goes from being fresh and vital to being exactly the sort of movie you’ve seen ten times or more (as Mr. Bowie might say). When it starts telling us what day it is of his 118-day imprisonment, it starts to feel like we’re in for a pretty long slog. Stewart’s answer to this looming problem is sometimes troubling. To introduce one ghostly member of Bahari’s family may be viewed as a convenient and forgivable indulgence. To introduce a second one runs the risk of risibility. Much better is the humor mined when Bahari starts confessing to the most absurd nonsense (presumably this is out of the book). But whether this is enough to offset the more damaging aspects of the latter portions of the film — including all the media chatter, the feel-good stuff and the last title card — is another question altogether. The first-rate cast certainly helps. For me, it has great moments, not so great moments and some pretty old hat moments, but it’s unfailingly interesting — and I’d watch a second film by Stewart. Rated R for language, including some crude references and violent content.