“The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart makes a more than credible filmmaking debut with “Rosewater,” a film that reflects his cable TV show’s strong political and social sensibilities but with virtually none of its crazy humor.
That Stewart resists flexing the expected muscles in his first movie is to his credit. He even displays cinematic touches here and there, most notably when using storefront and security windows to reflect people and scenes from a character’s past life as he strolls down a London street.
But he has also painted himself into a dramatic corner as his story places two men in a face-off in a tiny room for nearly an hour. Unlike Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours,” where a character is trapped by a rock in an underground cavern for nearly the entire picture, Stewart at this stage of his filmmaking isn’t able to find much cinematic inventiveness in such a static situation.
The story is based on a book by one of Stewart’s guests on “The Daily Show,” both before and after his ordeal which he detailed in his book “Then They Came for Me.” The movie is an account of the jailing, rough interrogation and release after four months of a young journalist at the time of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.
London-based Iranian-Canadian Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) returns to his home country on assignment from Newsweek in June of 2009 to cover the hotly contested presidential election between the hardline conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a perceived moderate.
Then he gives footage showing Iranian soldiers firing on Iranian protestors in the aftermath of what most observers felt was a rigged election to TV outlets. He is hauled away from the home of his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and thrown into prison for 118 days.
Stewart, who adapted Bahari’s book, does find one cinematic device to invigorate the prison scenes. Since his late father had been imprisoned by the Shah’s regime in the 1950s for his communist activities, Bahari encounters the ghostly figure of his dad to buck him up and to steer him in the right direction to withstand the physical and psychological torture he knows all too well.
(Tellingly, Bahari’s sister Maryam was also imprisoned by the revolutionary government of he Ayatollah Khomeni in the 1980s so Barhari’s arrest made an unfortunately trifecta for his beleaguered family — each jailed by a different tyrannical dictator!)
Otherwise the newsman’s only real visitor is an interrogator (Danish actor Kim Bodnia) he felicitously nicknames “Rosewater.” Their duel comprises the meat of the movie.
Rosewater is both a scary and comic figure. He knows where his duty lies — to sweat out a “confession” as a spy for many Western agencies — the CIA, Mossad, MI6 and even Newsweek. Yet Rosewater isn’t necessarily a smart man.
He is often a bumbler, one that must be reprimanded by his much more clever superior. He demands to know who is this man Bahari has liked on Facebook, Anton Chekhov?
When the prisoner discovers Rosewater’s secret weakness for tales of Western sexual decadence, like a latter-day Scheherazade he makes up ludicrous tales of special lascivious massages in such fleshpots as New Jersey.
Mostly though, this section lacks any real sense of urgency given that you know the author survived to be freed and tell his tale.
The film has some fine early scenes with a hip young driver (a lively Dimitri Leonidas) who whizzes the journalist around Tehran on a motorcycle. He introduces Bahari to similarly Westernized youths who hang out at “Dish University,” a building whose tall and therefore hidden rooftop contains many satellite dishes giving them access to international media.
The performances are fine. Bernal finds moments of levity and joy even in prison and Bodnia seems at times almost apologetic about the abuse he heaps on a helpless man.
The prisoner’s “inner dialogue” with his father has its moments too. The father remarks about the old prison-and-torture routine that Iranians “haven’t learned much since the days of the Shah.”
This is brought home with special force with a final revelation about Rosewater’s own past when he realizes his captor will be leaving him forever to return home for the birth of his first child.
Jordan for the most part substitutes for Iran but it appears someone managed to “steal” some footage on Tehran streets to insert into these early sequences.
The cinematography by Bobby Bukowski, especially in the confined spaces of prison, make this an accessible and watchable film. But nothing ultimately drives the movie.
Opens: November 14, 2014 (Open Road Films)
Production companies: Open Road Films, OddLot Entertainment
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Halah Bilginer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Golshifteh Farahani, Dimitri Leonidas, Claire Foy, Nasser Faris, Miles Jupp
Director/screenwriter: Jon Stewart
Based on the book by: Maziar Bahari
Producers: Scott Rudin, Jon Stewart, Gigi Pritzker
Executive producers: Lila Yacoub, Eli Bush, Chris McShane
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Music: Howard Shore
Costume designer: Phaedra William Dahdaleh
Editor: Jay Rabinowitz
R rating, 103 minutes