Rosewater is based on The New York Times best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, written by Maziar Bahari. The film marks the directorial debut of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, and stars Gael García Bernal. Rosewater follows the Tehran-born Bahari, a broadcast journalist with Canadian citizenship. In June 2009, Bahari returned to Iran to interview Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was the prime challenger to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Mousavi’s supporters rose up to protest Ahmadinejad’s victory declaration hours before the polls closed, Bahari endured personal risk by sending footage of the street riots to the BBC. Bahari was arrested by police, led by a man identifying himself only as “Rosewater,” who tortured and interrogated him over the next 118 days. With Bahari’s wife leading an international campaign to have her husband freed, and Western media outlets keeping the story alive, Iranian authorities released Bahari on $300,000 bail and the promise he would act as a spy for the government.
A serious subject matter may seem like a strange choice for a comedian to make for his screenwriting and directing debut, but Jon Stewart has established himself as a very specific kind of comedian, and the subject matter of Rosewater has a special significance to him. As the film demonstrates, a piece from The Daily Show where Jason Jones interviewed Maziar Bahari was later used by the Iranian government as proof that Bahari was a spy. Stewart’s desire to bring Bahari’s story to more attention is what leads Rosewater; it’s a passion project for its story, more than for any artistic endeavor on Stewart’s part.
While some of Stewart’s particular sense of humor does peek through at times, Rosewater is a more serious film, which is fitting for the subject matter. Bahari’s imprisonment by Iran lasted for 118 days, during which he was interrogated, tortured, and forced to create a confession that he he was a spy for western governments.
The film opens on the morning of Bahari’s arrest, before going back 11 days to show Bahari leaving his pregnant wife in London to cover the 2009 elections in Iran. Over the course of the first part of the film, we see Bahari’s interactions with young activists who support the political opposition in Iran. We also see Bahari briefly recording his interview for The Daily Show, laughing it off as a silly piece of comedy.
While this part of the film is informative, it’s the second act on that’s more captivating. It’s here that we see Bahari’s interactions with an interrogator only known as “Rosewater,” based on the smell the typically blindfolded Bahari notices. The physical and psychological torture that’s demonstrated is crushing, and shows how someone can easily break under such pressure.
The film ends with Bahari’s eventual release, credited to his mother’s informing Bahari’s wife of his situation, and her in turn making his imprisonment well-enough known that even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comments on Bahari. It’s a satisfying end, in some ways, though the film’s acknowledgement that Bahari was more fortunate than most seems tacked on. After the building suspense of two-thirds of the film where Bahari’s in prison, though, it feels like a tidy ending to a messy situation.