More pertinently, Stewart is not always the most expert at balancing disparate tones. But the fact that there are disparate tones at all came as something of a surprise.
The film plays like a straight-up ripped-from-the-headlines Middle East potboiler for the first hour or so. Bahari is covering the 2009 Iranian election, and the protests that followed, and when his video footage of rioting hits the national news, he's detained and imprisoned by Iranian officials. But the longer Bahari remains in prison and subject to interrogation, the more freedom the story takes on in terms of tone. Bahari has imagined conversations with his dead father, himself imprisoned and interrogated by the state for his Communist affiliations. Not gauzy, Malickian "Father, always you are with me" stuff. Wry, probing, sometimes sarcastic confrontations with a man whose resolve Bahari can't seem to match. Kim Bodnia, as the interrogation "specialist" takes on a kind of hybrid monster/buffoon role, as clueless of the crimes of which he's accusing Bahari (who's essentially jailed as a U.S./Zionist spy working through Newsweek). As Bodnia's character makes one dumb-sounding accusation after another (plumbing Bahari's Facebook likes for suspicious ties to Anton Chekhov), Bahari becomes more and more struck, and even emboldened, by what schmucks these guys are. Things eventually get pretty jokey, with cracks about the magazine industry and the state of New Jersey— not to mention an extended riff where Bahari feigns an addiction to hookers (just go with it) — that might well be coming from a Daily Show segment.
These comedic interludes are played as moments of levity, and even eventually as thematic counterbalance, but they never manage to break free of a story that is still well aware of its own grave implications. There's a part of me that longed for Stewart to make a truly bold choice and direct the whole thing as a farce. M*A*S*H for the modern age. That's a lot to be asking of a first time director, I realize. As was clear from hearing Stewart talk about the film afterwards, his paramount concern was telling Bahari's story faithfully, and he repeatedly talked about how the humor in the film is all rooted in Bahari's book.
There's a kind of contradiction in Stewart's career, or at least a friction between what's just for laughs and what's honest-to-God political agitation, and he's often been frustrating in the way he's tried to talk his way around both of those elements. The Daily Show is an engaged, often angry push-back at the absurdities and awfulness of the news, both foreign and domestic; until, sometimes, it isn't, and Stewart will claim they're just making comedy. There's a little bit of that friction in Rosewater, where the comedy bits and the dramatic beats don't always blend as smoothly as you'd like them to. But it makes for a hell of a lot more interesting film to discuss than I was expecting at the outset.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.