If that TV day job, er, night job, doesn’t work out for him, it’s a good bet that Jon Stewart can make a living as a filmmaker. His directorial debut, “Rosewater,” is a finely wrought, powerful drama that tells the true story of an Iranian-born journalist’s imprisonment and torture by the Islamic regime in Iran.
After living abroad for years, Maziar Bahari, played by Gael García Bernal, returns to his homeland to cover the 2009 presidential campaign pitting hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against a number of challengers, the most prominent of which was Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a relative moderate. The election results are announced even before all the votes were counted, with Ahmadinejad declared the winner by a wide margin. Tens of thousands take to the streets in cities throughout the country to protest the fraud.
In the government crackdown that follows, Bahari, who had filmed the events and sent his footage to the BBC, is quickly arrested and thrown into Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he is accused of being a spy for the West. The bulk of the movie dramatizes his incarceration.
Bahari spends much of the picture in solitary confinement, inside a cell of featureless gray walls. It’s psychological, rather than physical, torment that is his captors’ main method of abuse. He’s blindfolded, seated in a chair, relentlessly interrogated by a man called a “specialist,” played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia.
Bahari is disoriented, isolated, accused, threatened, and Bernal makes vivid his character’s slow psychological disintegration. Bodnia’s portrayal of his inquisitor, named Rosewater, is impressive in the implacable, clinical way he goes about undermining his victim. The scenes between the two of them, the dominant cat versus the beleaguered mouse, are the core of the picture.
Stewart, who interviewed Bahari on “The Daily Show” after he was freed (he was held for 118 days) and was one of many international voices calling for his release during his incarceration (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was another), directs with great subtlety. The script, which he based on Bahari’s memoir “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival,” gets beneath his subject’s skin and puts his ordeal in context with the larger issues of Iranian politics. A very impressive achievement.