Despite being a long-standing enemy of the Iranian theocracy, I found “Rosewater” very unsatisfying. As cable TV comedian Jon Stewart’s maiden voyage in film (he directed and wrote the screenplay), it is hobbled by both his inexperience in this medium as well as subject matter that might defy the best efforts of a Costa-Gavras. This is a tale based on the real-life persecution of Newsweek reporter Maziar Bihari who was in solitary confinement in Evin prison after being arrested on trumped-up charges for spying in 2009.
Stewart had a personal stake in making the film since Bihari was a guest on his show and a cause célèbre for the Daily Show after his imprisonment. For those who have tuned into his half-hour satire from time to time, you’re probably aware that there’s a special place in his heart for journalists up against a repressive state like Egypt’s Bassem Youssef. For Stewart, there’s an emphasis on freedom of the press even if there’s not quite an understanding that such freedom only exists for those who own one, as A.J. Liebling once put it.
A good ninety percent of the film takes place in the confines of Bihari’s cell in Evin Prison as an Iranian cop nicknamed Rosewater for the cologne he wears pressures him to confess to being a CIA agent. No matter how committed you are to the rights of journalists, there is simply not that much drama you can wring out of an interrogator making absurd demands on a prisoner when he is not beating him. Additionally, there is very little suspense as to how things turn out since one can only surmise that Bihari did not end up with a bullet in the head. Jon Stewart is not the sort of person who would spend good time and money on creating such a downer.
An additional problem is that as a character, Bihari has no strong beliefs. Although obviously in support of the Green movement that was protesting in the streets against what it considered a rigged election, he is like most professional reporters–somebody making a living rather than a fuss. As such, his tendency is to remonstrate with Rosewater that—as Joseph K. put it—there must be some kind of mistake. There are and were revolutionaries locked up and tortured in Evin but surely we can agree with Jon Stewart that a Newsweek reporter was there only because an out-of-control theocracy was ready to victimize a reporter seen mistakenly as an enemy of the Islamic Republic.
Maziar Bihari was nothing like his father who spent years in Evin prison in the 1950s for his Communist opposition to the shah. To create a contrast between father and son, Stewart has an actor play the father in a number of scenes in which the son conducts an imaginary dialogue with his father. As expected, the father speaks in terms of a revolutionary duty to oppose dictatorship while the son replies that he is mostly interested in getting out and back to his pregnant wife and his job.
There are some odd casting choices in the film. Best known for his performance as Che Guevara in Walter Salles’s “Motorcycle Diaries”, Mexican actor Gael García Bernal plays Bihari while his tormentor is played by Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor who was unforgettable as a low-level drug dealer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Pusher”. Given such an international cast (Rosewater’s superior is played by a Turk and Bihari’s driver is played by a Greek with British citizenship), he directed everybody to affect an Iranian accent—something that was a bad mistake especially in the case of Rosewater who kept reminding me of those American or British actors playing Nazi prison guards: “Ve haff a way of making people talk.”
But the worst miscalculation—a function of the “based on reality” framework—was turning Rosewater into a stick figure, a prison interrogator out of central casting. Now I would be the first to admit that anybody serving in that capacity for the Islamic Republic would be a real rat-hole but wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the character had some complexity? There was a scant 30 seconds when that possibility floated past. Toward the end of the film, when Bihari was about to be released, Rosewater tells him that he was never tortured like his father was in Evin prison.
If I had written the screenplay for “Rosewater”, I would have turned that into a backstory. I would have made the extremism of the interrogator more plausible by showing what his father endured and what led Iranians to back a dictatorship that harped on American imperialism so much. An American audience does not need to be convinced that Ahmadinejad and his tools were shit but it certainly needs some education on why Iranian students so often burned Uncle Sam in effigy.
As absurd as the charges against Maziar Bihari, the Iranians were on to something when they kept harping on Newsweek being a den of spies. Again, if I had written the screenplay, I would have had Rosewater read excerpts from Carl Bernstein’s Rolling Stone article from October 20, 1977—back at a time when the CIA rather than reporters like James Risen were on he defensive:
… At Newsweek, Agency sources reported, the CIA engaged the services of several foreign correspondents and stringers under arrangements approved by senior editors at the magazine.
… “To the best of my knowledge:” said [Harry] Kern, [Newsweek’s foreign editor from 1945 to 1956] “nobody at Newsweek worked for the CIA…. The informal relationship was there. Why have anybody sign anything? What we knew we told them [the CIA] and the State Department…. When I went to Washington, I would talk to Foster or Allen Dulles about what was going on …. We thought it was admirable at the time. We were all on the same side.” CIA officials say that Kern’s dealings with the Agency were extensive.
… When Newsweek was purchased by the Washington Post Company, publisher Philip L. Graham was informed by Agency officials that the CIA occasionally used the magazine for cover purposes, according to CIA sources. “It was widely known that Phil Graham was somebody you could get help from,” said a former deputy director of the Agency. . . . But Graham, who committed suicide in 1963, apparently knew little of the specifics of any cover arrangements with Newsweek, CIA sources said.
I am not sure what Americans will get out of this film, but there is at least one Iranian it left cold. This is what Kaveh Mousavi, “the pseudonym of an atheist ex-Muslim living in Iran, subject to one of the world’s remaining theocracies” and “a student of English Literature, an aspiring novelist, and part-time English teacher”, had to say:
Bahari appeared on a program called Pargar, on BBC Persian TV. In that program he not only defended his caving as a right thing to do (which is defensible), he attacked people who remained resilient under torture. He called them – repeatedly – romantics, and foolish revolutionaries behind the flow of times, and he said all of this to the face of Iraj Mesdaghi, a man who was a political prisoner in the 80s, when the regime was ten times more vicious than 2009, who had barely escaped a massacre, and had remained resilient under severe torture, which eclipses Bahari’s torture by miles.
It was from that time that I abhorred Bahari. Many of people I knew abhorred him already for confessions, but I find that wrong. No one can demand others to act in a certain in face of torture. He had the right to choose his own safety and freedom. But I abhor him for belittling real heroes, real freedom fighters, people he’s not worthy of licking their shoes. It’s one thing to defend your own choice, it’s another to demean the choice of those who made other (arguably more honorable) choices. And this was in the heat of the time we felt Green Movement is being defeated, and we felt desperate and very angry. It wasn’t a good time to shit on the heroes of an oppressed movement, and there was no need to.
Let me conclude with a few words about Jon Stewart, a comedian I tend to avoid nowadays for the same reasons I avoid Stephen Colbert and MSNBC. For the past six years we have been living under a regime that is in many ways worse than the one that preceded it, at least if you compare it to George W. Bush’s relatively chastened second term. I simply don’t want to be reminded of how lousy the Koch brothers are when Obama has deported more “illegal” immigrants than Bush.
Comedy is all about biting the hand that feeds it. The Viacom Corporation owns Comedy Central, the cable station that hosts “The Daily Show”. Viacom’s Rupert Murdoch is a nonagenarian named Sumner Redstone, whose net worth is $6.2 billion. Despite being a life-long Democrat, Redstone endorsed George W. Bush in 2004. In addition to his control over Viacom, he also has effective ownership of CBS, formerly the parent company of Viacom.
CBS and Viacom are major players in a media oligopoly that has been reduced to a smaller number over the past several decades, the fiefdom of people like Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch. In a country where the free press reigns, there is no need to torture journalists or imprison them. The system works by making the stakes for reaching a mass audience so impossibly high that critics of the system in effect suffer solitary confinement. There is no need to put a gag over the socialist press since the costs of becoming a “player” are so high. Once that movement begins to gain the hearing that the Green Movement got in Iran, trust me that our own Maziar Biharis will end up in our own Evin prisons. Take a look at what James Risen is up against right now to get a feel for what awaits us.