There has always existed a very thin line between the serious and the humorous. Those that walk along it are usually ripe for ridicule if they step even a foot wrong, and with such an ambitious premise at play, this is, expectedly, really rather common. One man to have done so with almost unparalleled success over the past nearly twenty years is American comedian Jon Stewart, through his TV program The Daily Show. Now making the leap from television to cinema, Stewart looks to maintain his politically charged approach to the media, twinning it rather unconventionally with his own brand of edgy humour in a real life story of torture in Iran. Does it work? Well, to be honest, not really.
Rosewater follows the true story of British/Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari who was detained by the Iranian government in 2009 on claims that he was a spy. After being arrested following the country’s supposedly botched presidential election, Bahari was held in prison in Iran for over 100 days, during which he was brutally interrogated. The kicker here being that during his questioning, Bahari was consistently asked about a segment he had recorded for Stewart’s The Daily Show wherein the actors involved pretended he was in fact a spy. In case a true life adaptation wasn’t meta enough already.
As expected from a biopic with such a crushing plot, Rosewater is on the most part, a realist human drama, and this is where it earns the majority of its praise. Stewart attempts to keep his film as close to the reality of Bahari’s ordeal as possible and this makes for some incredibly tense and really rather emotionally harrowing sequences. Gael Garcia Bernal brings Bahari to life with an obvious sense of frustration. He’s a man who’s life has been snatched away from him by a government without evidence, and Bernal’s performance truly encapsulates the spirit of such an injustice. In these moments of quiet reflection and hard-nosed drama, it really feels like Stewart is onto a winner.
However, this is but one side to the man, the other more celebrated side being his role as a political comedian. And so begins the humour, at first as a subtle lacing to the otherwise deadly serious narrative, before becoming more prominent oddly enough after Bahari’s capture. Bernal’s dead-pan delivery raises a smirk and his delivery is on point, it’s just the very presence of the comedy that seems to astound. It’s understandable that Stewart should wish to inject some laughter into this otherwise rather dark tale but in doing so, he completely compromises Rosewater’s entire tone. Whereas it is expected for a film that deals with the improper arrest and torture of an innocent man to be deep and involving, here Stewart’s humour creates something else entirely; one never really feels the urgency of the situation. Despite the regular mental beatings and constant vocal harassment, Bernal’s characterisation of Bahari simply laughs a great deal of it off, leaving the viewer feeling emotionally distant from the entire debacle.
Jon Stewart’s first foray into feature filmmaking was always likely to turn heads, but little did we expect it to be in quite such a bizarre way. Although true to his source material and glazed with his own unique brand of contentious comedy, Stewart’s debut is a largely mismatched attempt at something really quite different. True, the film is to some extent, funny, and also significantly affecting, but always at separate times and whenever the two tones blend together, disaster ensues. Rosewater is ultimately forced apart by its creator’s indecisiveness, although the very fact that Stewart tried it on is worthy of some praise indeed. Just make sure he learns from his mistakes for next time.
Rosewater, directed by Jon Stewart,is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival on 12th & 14th October. Tickets are available from whatson.bfi.org.uk.