Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Rosewater

I consider myself a huge Daily Show fan, all flaws considered. Not just for the Steve C’s it’s generated, but for the straight-faced foil at the center. Like him or hate him, Jon Stewart has made a mark on the growing media landscape: he makes viral interviews out of typically un-sellable interviewees, exposes hypocrisy in damning clarity, and — by making it “comedy” — convinces disillusioned young people to care. As a sole source of news it’s far from complete. But if I have to choose a bias to sway me, I’ll take this one. Despite every interview Stewart gives to the contrary, there’s clearly a conscientious message underneath: people are people, hyperbole is silly, we owe ourselves better.

Rosewater seems tailor-made to propel that message. It presents the [roughly true] account of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian Newsweek reporter who was sent to Tehran to cover the 2009 Ahmadinejad/Mousavi elections and, after filming the violent protests that followed, was imprisoned as a spy. The film follows his months of interrogation and solitary confinement, as he struggles to find common ground with the fundamentalism of his captors. Fresh after watching Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis, I was excited to see more of Iran’s contradictory struggle put to screen. It was clearly a passion project, and I was rooting for it to do something cool.

Ultimately, it just didn’t do much at all. It’s not that it did anything especially wrong; on the contrary, there’s plenty to commend. Stewart’s style was solid for a first-time director, subdued when needed to be but not afraid of the occasional left-field visual touch. Gael Garcia Bernal is always powerful and believable. And the message was on point: no standard xenophobic flourishes, no overly simplistic ideals, refusing to paint Bahari as any stronger than he was. Unfortunately, there’s also a reason most films don’t push for verisimilitude: real life is a mess of competing factors, and it’s really, really hard to make that mess cohere for a bunch of strangers in 2 hours. Great films like Persepolis rise to the occasion and are better for their subtlety, but here nothing seems to sustain momentum: Bernal’s Bahari isn’t notably heroic, his captors aren’t notably evil, his situation isn’t notably hopeless, and his conclusion is sobering and muted. You care, of course, but always at an intellectual level. The stakes are never felt for too long. Which is a shame, because when it loosens up a bit it has moments of genuine greatness. I just wish those moments had more than dry exposition and tempered ideals to tie them together. If you would be unloved and forgotten, be reasonable. God bless you, Rosewater, but you should have aimed higher.

See my review on Letterboxd