Gael García Bernal (right) in Rosewater
Gael García Bernal (right) in Rosewater

Walter Cronkite, the veteran CBS anchorman, was often referred to as “the most trusted man in America.” Of course, back then there was only one America (from sea to shining sea), and now there are two—one blue and one red, each with its own news media and its own reality. No one person could hope to win the trust of both these countries, so instead of Cronkite we’ve got Fox News bloviator Bill O’Reilly and Comedy Central satirist Jon Stewart, each trusted by his own viewers and deeply mistrusted by the other man’s. As a blue American, I don’t trust O’Reilly any farther than I could throw him, though as a film critic, I trust Stewart for only the first two segments of The Daily Show. After that the celebrity guests come on and the usual bullshit starts flying, as Stewart falls all over himself to flack their mediocre movies.

Now he’s got a movie of his own—Rosewater, a worthy and modestly successful drama he wrote and directed about the four-month imprisonment in Iran of Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari. Born in Tehran, Bahari returned to his native land in June 2009 to cover the presidential election for Newsweek, and after the disputed returns drove millions of Iranians into the streets to protest, Bahari was picked up by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and held for 118 days in the notorious Evin Prison on suspicion of spying for the CIA, MI6, and Mossad. Prior to the election, Bahari had taken part in a comic segment for The Daily Show with “correspondent” Jason Jones, who identified himself onscreen as a U.S. spy, and the segment was cited by Bahari’s interrogator as proof of his skullduggery. “We felt awful,” Stewart told the Hollywood Reporter. In fact Rosewater is more interesting for its creative subtext—a fake journalist, adored by millions, paying humble tribute to a real journalist who might easily have rotted in jail—than for anything that’s actually onscreen.

You can always tell a novice writer from his fretful accumulation of prefatory material, and Rosewater opens with not one but two introductions. The first illustrates a voice-over from Bahari (Gael García Bernal) in which he remembers a childhood visit to a Muslim shrine where the worshippers were drizzled with rose water: “I used to think only the most pious carried that scent.” The second shows women harvesting roses, which are fed into a vise and crushed down into the title liquid, as verses from Ahmad Shamlu’s “In the Blind Alley,” written just after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, play across the screen: “He who pounds on the door in the nighttime / Has come to kill the light.” Finally Stewart cross-fades to a car interior as Revolutionary Guard agents drive to the home of Bahari’s mother to arrest the journalist, and their middle-aged leader (Kim Bodnia), who will become Bahari’s anonymous interrogator and torturer, spritzes his wrists with rose water. So I think we’ve got the title all straightened out.

Though Stewart has chosen an eminently serious subject for his filmmaking debut, Rosewater reveals a distinctive writing voice mainly when it flirts with shtick. Rousted out of bed by the agents, Bahari sits on a couch in his mother’s living room as Rosewater rifles through his possessions. “This is porno!” the man insists, thrusting a DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) into Bahari’s face. “It is an art film, from Italy,” Bahari explains. From there Rosewater moves on to a box set of The Sopranos: “Porno.” Bahari protests, to no avail. A few more items are examined and dubiously classified as pornography, until Rosewater holds up a copy of the movie magazine Empire with the headline “the Hot Issue” and a slutty photo of Megan Fox on the cover. “Porno,” he declares. “Yes, could be,” Bahari admits.

After Bahari’s arrest Stewart flashes back 11 days, covering the reporter’s farewell to his pregnant wife in London, his arrival in Tehran, his man-on-the-street interviews prior to the election, his brief sit-down with Jones (who plays himself), and his videography of the postelection rioting outside the Basij militia headquarters, the international broadcast of which probably triggered his arrest. Rosewater works well enough as a primer on the disputed election for people whose best source of information at the time may have been comedy segments on The Daily Show. But the movie resonates more in its second half, after Bahari has been sentenced to solitary confinement in a dank, tiny cell and Rosewater begins the slow, methodical process of trying to break him psychologically.

Stewart has always magnified the importance of the Daily Show segment in Bahari’s story: when the reporter appeared on the show to promote his book, And Then They Came for Me, Stewart apologized for having gotten him thrown in jail, and that same narrative applied last week when Jones and executive producer Tim Greenberg (along with Bahari and Bernal) appeared on the show to talk about Rosewater. But along with whatever guilt Stewart may have felt, he must also have been creatively engaged by the absurdity of a comedy bit being turned into evidence of international espionage, and Rosewater again hints at an artistic voice when he mines Bahari’s grim experience for Pinteresque laughs. Turning the tables, Bahari intrigues the prudish Rosewater with tales of erotic massages he received while living in New Jersey (Stewart’s home state, and a frequent butt of his jokes). Rosewater is fascinated by Bahari’s description of Fort Lee, “the massage playground of the world,” where people have been known to die of pleasure. “Incredible!” Rosewater exclaims. “Not for New Jersey,” Bahari replies knowingly.

Whether or not the Jason Jones segment was responsible for Bahari’s ordeal, it clearly exposed the yawning chasm between Stewart and company, whose “remotes” are usually shot in the studio before a green screen, and real reporters, whose final video appearances sometimes involve their heads getting chopped off. “Journalists are now seen by many combatants, especially jihadis, as legitimate targets and valuable propaganda tools, alive or dead,” writes George Packer in a recent New Yorker piece. “The best-known cases involve Western reporters, from Daniel Pearl to James Foley, but the most endangered journalists are ones you’ve probably never heard of—the newspaper reporter in Tijuana, the cameraman in Karachi, the blogger in Tehran.” According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 64 news people have been killed worldwide this year alone, and as Packer points out, another reason for the escalating fatalities is that cash-strapped news organizations increasingly rely on unprotected stringers in foreign lands. That probably won’t change as long as a significant number of people get all their news from The Daily Show.

Given that cultural landscape, Rosewater certainly has merit as an act of atonement on Stewart’s part and a tribute to people like Bahari, who risk their lives to collect information the rest of us need (but often don’t want). In the end, however, the movie needs to stand on its own, apart from its noble intentions and the popularity of its writer-director. The odd thing about Rosewater is that—much like Ben Affleck’s Argo, another fact-based drama set in Iran—it’s a political film without any significant political slant. Even Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008), wrongheaded as I found it, had a strong political perspective that forced me to examine my own beliefs. Rosewater, by comparison, often seems more like tap water. Stewart wants us to know that Islamic theocracy is the enemy of personal liberty, that international journalists deserve the utmost respect, and that families suffer terribly when their loved ones are thrown into political prisons. I agree with all that—and so, I imagine, does Bill O’Reilly.