One of the reasons why the Jon Stewart brand of journalism—part satire, part serious, part meta media critique—works as well as it does is that it resonates with audiences (particularly younger audiences) who’ve been raised in a world of infotainment.

For a while now the media landscape has been a conflated mess of celebrity, conglomerate-fueled cross-promotion, crossfire political debates, “breaking news” as spectator sport, Nancy Grace trial TV, talking head opining, and increasingly short-term memory. Our Twitter feeds are apt metaphors for this: we scroll through dozens of disconnected bits wherein #Ferguson might follow #AlexFromTarget might follow #WeAreN. The dire is juxtaposed with the dumb, the important with the insipid.

Image: Open Road Films


By embracing it all with a wink, Stewart’s Daily Show manages to sometimes be a clarion amidst the chaos.

Unfortunately not everyone gets the joke, or the point, behind Stewart’s shtick—the government of Iran, for example. In 2009 a Daily Show correspondent filmed a sketch in Tehran inadvertently led to the arrest and imprisonment of journalist Maziar Bahari, whose 118-day imprisonment and torture in Iran’s Evin prison is chronicled in the new film Rosewater, Stewart’s own directorial debut.

The film follows Bahari (Gael García Bernal), an Iranian-born reporter for Newsweek who traveled to Iran in June 2009 to cover the presidential election between controversial incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and leading challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Near the start of the film Bahari meets Jason Jones of The Daily Show at an Iranian café and is “interviewed” on camera for a comedic segment about America’s “axis of evil” perceptions of Iran.

Little does Bahari know that the farcical segment would soon be used, in all seriousness, as evidence that he was meeting with American “spies” and betraying Iran. In the volatile aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s dubious re-election and the bloody protests that Bahari was videoing for western news outlets, the paranoid government sought to discredit and imprison him, and the Daily Show interview was their supposed just cause.

Welcome to the weird world of journalism and geo-politics in the 21st century.

At first glance the art-imitating-life-imitating-art film, based on Bahari’s best-selling memoir Then They Came for Me, is quite different than what we’re used to from Stewart. A movie about Iranian politics and prison torture doesn’t seem like the logical choice of subject matter for the comedian’s first feature.

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Yet Stewart’s hands are clearly in it. For one thing, it’s a film that juxtaposes disturbing realities with comedic absurdities. Like The Daily Show, Rosewater finds laughter to be the only sensible outlet for the madness (indeed, the stupidity) of much of what it depicts. Much of the film’s second half is set in an interrogation room featuring a blindfolded Bahari being physically and psychologically tortured by his unnamed interrogator (Kim Bodnia) who smells of rosewater. Heavy stuff.

Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Rosewater'
Image: Open Road Films

Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Rosewater'

And yet many of these scenes are also quite funny. Stewart injects humor into the film’s weightiest sequences and it sometimes works (the best jokes are had at New Jersey’s expense). At other times the humor feels distracting and tonally out of place; it’s not as simple to toggle between serious, satire and smirk in a film about torture as it might be on a late-night TV show.

Another way Rosewater bears Stewart’s imprint is its interest in the way journalism and media facilitate either truth telling or self-deception. Stewart critiques the naïve propaganda of a country like Iran, which thinks it can keep the truth from its citizens in an age of satellites, cell phones, and Twitter. Institutional corruption cannot hide for long in an era where one stray YouTube video (for example, the “Neda” death video that went viral during the 2009 Iranian protests) can turn the whole world against you.

But the film is also a critique of western media and its largely disinterested approach to the nuances of life in countries like Iran. Only after “one of their own” (western journalist Bahari) is falsely imprisoned does Iran’s institutional corruption become an issue of concern. Certainly this hits close to home today. ISIS and its exploits in Syria and Iraq went largely unreported until western journalists started getting beheaded on camera. Even though it had already killed thousands in West Africa, Ebola hardly registered in the U.S. until cable news freaked out about a handful of American missionaries and nurses contracting the virus.

So among other things, the film is a gut check for viewers who watch and realize they know little (or nothing) about what’s happening in other parts of the world. In our globalized, always-on, interconnected world, why are we still so ignorant of each other? Rosewater, like Stewart’s Daily Show, wants to challenge us on this question.

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What role does the media play in either perpetuating “truthiness” (to use Stephen Colbert's term) or bringing clarity and accountability to it? Stewart’s film champions the important role of journalists even as it laments the degradation of the profession. Are traditional journalists even necessary in a world of citizen reporting and organizing via cell phone and social media?

Rosewater nods in this direction, but doesn’t take up the question thoroughly. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of the film is that it doesn’t have clear focus or commitment to going deeper into one particular question. Is the film about Iran? Torture? Family? Journalism? The cyclical nature of war, terror and violence? Rosewater is about all of this, but it may have been stronger had it chosen just one or two of these areas to more profoundly ponder.

Kim Bodnia and Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Rosewater'
Image: Open Road Films

Kim Bodnia and Gael Garcia Bernal in 'Rosewater'

As it is, the film feels a bit scatterbrained and obvious, full of the sort of pithy punchlines and make-you-think zingers that comprise a good episode of The Daily Show, but lacking in long form depth or stylistic originality. Even though its specific story is one most audiences won’t have heard (and that itself is probably a valid-enough raison d'être), Rosewater nevertheless feels too familiar and by-the-book. Perhaps it would have been better as a documentary. In its best moments Rosewater reminded me of last year’s Academy Award-nominated The Square, about the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

But will Jon Stewart keep making movies? I hope so. Though Rosewater is uneven, it certainly isn’t bad. I suspect Stewart has a lot more to give as a filmmaker and as a cinematic truth-teller in the age of truthiness.

Caveat Spectator

Rosewater is rated R, mostly for a few intense scenes of violence. We see protesters getting shot and killed in the streets, people getting beaten, and so on. The “torture” scenes are mostly all psychological and non-physical, but a few times they do become violent (nothing bloody, however). For a film with torture as a key part of the story, though, Rosewater’s violence is surprisingly tame. The film also has a fair amount of language and one sequence where sexually suggestive talk is played for laughs.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide(Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty(Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.

Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
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Mpaa Rating
R (For language including some crude references, and violent content.)
Directed By
Jon Stewart
Run Time
1 hour 43 minutes
Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia, Dimitri Leonidas
Theatre Release
November 27, 2014 by Open Road Films
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