Rosewater review: Scent of injustice in Stewart's debut
The Daily Show comedy host has incurred the Iranian authorities' wrath with this dramatic cinematic effort, says Andrew Johnston.
Comedians used to be the new rock 'n' rollers. Now, they're the new political activists. Or at least, you're more likely to hear insight, passion and honesty from a comedian these days than you are from a politician. From Eddie Izzard to Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais to Frankie Boyle, funnymen appear to be the new go-to guys for frank and informed political discussion.
And they don't come much more frank or informed than The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who has parlayed years of skewering politicos and spoofing their foibles on US television into his cinematic directorial debut, Rosewater.
The first thing to get out of the way is that it isn't a comedy. There are precious few laughs in Stewart's documentary-like account of the 2009 arrest, imprisonment and torture of Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), while in Iran covering that year's controversial presidential elections for Newsweek magazine.
He was held in the bleak Evin Prison by the Revolutionary Guard on a charge of treason, and tortured - though the regime refuted the term - by a captor (Kim Bodnia) whose only distinguishing feature was that he smelled of rosewater, who sought to extract a confession that the mild-mannered, bespectacled hack was in fact a US spy.
Both actors are utterly believable in their roles, with Garcia Bernal (Amores Perros, Y tu Mama Tambien, Babel) drawing you into the bizarre, nightmarish scenario his character found himself in without giving into actorly histrionics.
He reaches into Bahari's inner being to reveal the humanity and resolve that kept him going through his 118 days of imprisonment. (The writer's predicament also serves as a timely reminder of the freedom we sometimes take for granted in the west, and the brave work done by journalists in oppressive regimes).
Bodnia, too, plays his character understatedly, with the shaven-headed, permanently sweating thug's simmering resentment of his hostage - and his transparent fear of the westernised Bahari's free spirit - proving as terrifying as any explosion of violence (though there are some of those, as well).
Stewart's restrained handling of the prison scenes is superb, and, unlike some political biopics, he communicates the complicated backdrop to the incident well. Rosewater should be as easy to follow for those hitherto ignorant of Bahari's case as it will be for experts in the Middle East.
What gives Rosewater added edge is the role The Daily Show itself played in proceedings. Footage of Bahari being interviewed by the programme's satirical field reporter Jason Jones - who jokingly referred to himself as a 'spy' -was instrumental in rousing the suspicions of the Iranian authorities, and Jones gamely plays himself in a reconstruction of the fateful meeting.
Based on Bahari's own New York Times best-selling memoir, Then They Came for Me, Rosewater's narrow pitch may be unlikely to find much of an audience outside of niche circles - it's preaching to the converted, in other words - but it has already rattled the Iranian authorities, who have accused Stewart of being funded by Zionists and working with the CIA.
This, you suspect, will make the man laugh more than any multi-million-dollar box office takings would.