Torturers don’t get jokes in Jon Stewart’s debut film

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RPL Film Theatre
Feb. 19-22
3 out of 5

Jon Stewart’s imminent departure from The Daily Show is bad news for America, for several reasons. It’s not like younger generations only get their news from Stewart, but he is the one best able to cut through the bullshit and expose the real agendas of public figures and media phonies. Others might pick up some of the slack (John Oliver, Bill Maher), but they don’t have The Daily Show’s frequency or reach.

While he hasn’t revealed his post-retirement plans, it’s a good bet Stewart will be pursuing a career behind the cameras. His first film is flawed and features a rookie director’s mistakes, but for all its faults, Rosewater succeeds at depicting the power of critical thinking over the single-track minds of dogmatic true-believers. Even in authoritarian regimes.

Based on real events triggered by a segment in The Daily Show, Rosewater recounts the odyssey of Maziar Bahari (Gael García Bernal, The Motorcycle Diaries), a Canadian journalist of Iranian descent covering the contested election between Iran’s incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the liberal challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In typical Daily Show fashion, correspondent Jason Jones interviews Bahari with characteristic thick-headedness (sample question: “Why do you hate America?”) Bahari is game, but in jest admits being a spy.

Unfortunately for the journalist, the Iranian regime doesn’t quite get irony. Days later, while covering the Arab Spring movement that’s being crushed by Ahmadinejad’s forces, Bahari is taken prisoner and tortured for several months. The reporter spends his days in solitary confinement, except for the few hours he is questioned by a cruel and not particularly brilliant interrogator (Kim Bodnia, Pusher). Bahari fails to provide the information his captors want, both because he doesn’t have it and because his torturers lack the capacity to comprehend a world beyond the Iranian frontier.

As intrinsically fascinating as the set-up is, Stewart makes a questionable decision that hampers the power of the story. We spend large passages of the film with Bahari in solitary. If the idea was to allow the audience to understand the soul-crushing boredom the journalist was experiencing, good job. Unfortunately, the approach makes the whole experience feel like a chore. The ongoing conversations between the protagonist and his dead father (an activist imprisoned by the Ayatollah) is an old trick that’s been used too many times to be effective.

Still, we can be optimistic that Stewart has a bright future in film and that optimism comes from his deft use of humour in Rosewater. Laughs emerge organically from situations — some of the interrogation sessions are borderline riotous before turning scary. Bahari’s depiction of New Jersey as heaven on Earth, for instance, and his captor buying every word is quite funny, even while it paints a clear picture of the torturer’s very limited mindset. Behold the subversive power of comedy.