Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB. USA, 2014. Busboy Productions, International Traders, MWM. Screenplay by Jon Stewart, based on the book Then They Came For Me: A Family’s Story Of Love, Captivity and Survival by Maziar Bahari, Aimee Molloy. Cinematography by Bobby Bukowski. Produced by Music by Production Design by Costume Design by Film Editing by Toronto International Film Festival 2014.
Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) leaves his pregnant wife in London to visit his home country and cover the controversial 2009 democratic elections that saw incumbent Ahmadinejad’s established reign under threat. Insistent that he will only be gone for a few days and that his wife need not worry about a thing, Bahari stays with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo), interviews a number of citizens, participates in a humorous skit for The Daily Show and shows up for a few dangerous street riots before he himself becomes a target of suspicion. Men show up at his house, accuse him of being a spy and take him to prison where he is held and interrogated for months, completely cut off from the outside world and berated by Rosewater (Kim Bodnia), an officer who thinks that The Sopranos is porn and does not realize that Jon Stewart’s show is satire. Bahari is told by Rosewater that he will not be released until he makes a public statement clearing Ahmadinejad’s government of any wrongdoing or dictatorial-like behavior, while Bahari starts to see visions of his own political activist father (one of the film’s misguided attempts at lyricism) encouraging him to stay strong. Stewart, motivated by what he feels was his part in this man’s ordeal for having appeared on his show, has made his directorial debut with this uneven mess that insults its viewers with corny humour at odds with the dramatic portrayal of wrongful incarceration. Actors who are usually reliable come off like they are amateurs in an instructional training video as Stewart is far too light-hearted and simplistic about a very dangerous situation, then when it is time to get serious goes maudlin and excessively earnest. The humour is a welcome break from the terror that Bernal faces but, when delivered in English with mostly vague accents, just sounds stilted and awkward. The “bad” Iranians behave like villains in Hollywood action films and the “good” ones act like bros in a Michael Bay movie, making it come off more as western propaganda (look how good their society would be if they were only more like us) and, ironically, like the kind of thing Stewart would lampoon on his show. The central relationship, in which Bahari is supposed to have had his eyes opened by seeing the humanity behind Rosewater’s brutality, is never properly established and the chemistry between these two men (both non-Iranians doing an unconvincing job of the culture) is non-existent.