What we usually try to do with these reviews is shine the spotlight on some of the less appreciated players in filmmaking, but Rosewater is so much a child of your making that in this case it would be disingenuous to address this letter to anyone else.
A film that faithfully chronicles the sometimes surreal 118-day imprisonment of journalist (and Canadian educated) Maziar Bahari by Iranian authorities in 2009, Rosewater is an intimate and contemplative film. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that you decided to direct this particular story in the way that you did. Shot in Amman, Jordan with a skeleton crew of often only five or six people, it is small in scale but pretty large in ambition.
“Technology has democratized who is going to be bearing witness.” This is something you said in the context of a conversation about how repressive and autocratic regimes struggle to maintain control over messaging in a modern technological environment. It was also, in many ways, the central conceit of Rosewater: how technology is changing the nature of the often fraught relationship between governments - both autocratic and democratic - and the people. An iPhone and a few satellite dishes have become the tools of the revolutionary.
Rosewater is also concerned with the smallness of character that Bahari’s captors demonstrate, their ignorance of the world outside their own stunted, distorted lives. That they are frightened, oblivious creatures rather than fundamentally evil is a point that you drive home time and again, often with a kind of gallows humor that Gael Garcia Bernal, whom you chose to play Bahari, is wonderfully adept with. You also make it clear that you feel this ignorance is an aspect of their authoritarian leanings rather than something that is specific to any particular nation. By the way, Jon, Bernal was an exceptional choice to play the real life Bahari—his performance is remarkable for its restraint and honesty.
Still, despite the setting and difficult subject matter, the film is often engaging, filled with a dry humor and an observational wit that makes it more than simply about the hardships Bahari endured. You were quietly circumspect about the torture he endured and seemed far more interested in exploring the monotony and isolation that Bahari himself describes as the worst parts of his captivity.
You were also clever in that once your protagonist entered prison we as an audience are pretty much stuck there as well, only coming in contact with the outside world when the prisoner does. This does make the middle act difficult in some ways because it translates into an uncomfortable time for the audience. There were a lot of subtle touches like this that spoke to a well conceived and executed script.
Rosewater is a film that feels like a logical extension of your work up until now. The Daily Show has always been about skewering the ignorant and authoritarian leanings of bureaucracies, as well as reminding the media of how integral they are to the functioning of a healthy democracy. One person with a camera and some courage can be a catalyst for change, simply by bearing witness. This is a remarkably perceptive and mature debut. I can only hope you have a few more films like this in you.