Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ captures a real-life war of wills

Maziar Bahari was a reporter in the right place at the right time. An Iranian ex-pat turned Western journalist, he toted a video camera and moved with smiling, cautious ease through his native land — catching up with his mom, careful not to expose himself or his sources as Iran’s 2009 elections turned into the abortive “Green Revolution.”

But he wasn’t careful enough. Within days of his return home, he was arrested, despite being an accredited Newsweek reporter. What happened to him in a prison cell of the Islamic Republic of Iran, endlessly questioned by an aging, violent and increasingly agitated ex-revolutionary turned interrogator, is the riveting focus of “Rosewater,” the film directing debut of pundit-comic Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show.”

“Rosewater” shows Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) arriving, always grinning as he befriends a young taxi driver (Dimitri Leonidas) who then guides into him into the youth culture that has been educated in a repressive, censorious Islamic state, by “Dish University.”

That’s what they call their fields of hidden satellite dishes, their connection to news that’s not propaganda, to web servers where the Twitterverse was still free. Bahari feeds his video and bends over backward not to endanger his sources or offend his hosts.

Then the election happens, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s wins in a dubious landslide that made no sense to his foes, who knew the demographics. As the protests start and the government-backed enforcers start shooting, Bahari is among those to get footage — uncredited — to the outside world. And that’s when the plain clothes cops arrive.

“Rosewater” was the name Bahari gave his persecutor (Kim Bodnia), a cunning, perfume dolder man charged with getting a confession from this Westernized Iranian, a confession that discredits his reporting and the bad light Iran is in since the election, with its ensuing violent government crackdown on protesters.

As Rosewater, Bodnia builds on the menace of potential. He is much bigger and tougher than Bahari. The prisoner is kept blindfolded, helplessly seated. His solitary confinement isn’t the ugliest we’ve ever seen. But the silence, the lack of books, human contact (other than increasingly intense questioning) wears on his psyche.

Stewart, whose “Daily Show” interviewed Bahrani in Iran, a fact used against him in the interrogations, plays the suspense card well. In adapting “Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival” he makes the abrupt turn-abouts alternately inspiring and alarming.

Bahari’s story might not be representative of every prisoner of conscience trapped in an Iranian jail. But Stewart and Bernal have made a smart, moving and media-savvy memoir that might not make the world’s totalitarians quake in their boots. But from North Korea to China, Iran to Syria, it will have them looking over their shoulders and on rooftops, in search of satellite dishes.

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