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"Rosewater," Jon Stewart's uplifting directorial debut about solitary confinement, follows the capture and imprisonment of Maziar Bahari, a real journalist who was held on suspicion of being a CIA spy after the 2009 Iranian presidential election. The Canadian-Iranian reporter on assignment for Newsweek really did get scooped up, held for months and interrogated, roughly, for no crime worse than having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's never quite clear whether Bahari's captors — the flunkies for the autocratic regime that won the election in a suspicious landslide, sparking massive demonstrations throughout Iran and green Twitter avatars worldwide — even believe their own accusations of his spying, as absurd as they are. But then the stupidest lies are so often the most durable.
Stewart, the anchor of "The Daily Show," has made a career of skewering the foibles of journalists and, more abundantly, the nattering class who dissemble, speculate, misreport, misspeak and generally manufacture ignorance on cable airwaves under the guise of performing journalism. Stewart himself has been considered, dubiously, as a new sort of journalist, as his show holds power to account, even if that power is just cable-blowharding. With "Rosewater," his deflection of the title "journalist" can no longer be seen as false modesty, for Stewart has chosen as his hero a true journalist, bravely reporting on civil upheaval, who is, wouldn't you know it, accused of being a phony journalist.
The social message here is impossible to miss, but there's a real story here, and enough shading even in the captors that the story hums without plodding. Gael García Bernal ("Amores Perros," "The Science of Sleep") plays Bahari, who leaves his home in London for Tehran just as his wife (Claire Foy) is really starting to show a baby bump. An intended seven-day trip goes long when the unpopular incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad nearly doubles the vote totals of reformist challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Peaceful demonstrations turn to violent demonstrations; the archival footage swirled into the action suggests crackdowns turned ugly. After Bahari sends out a particularly incendiary video, a few large men arrive at his mother's house, where he is roused and grilled on his choices of DVDs. The lead interrogator, the "specialist" assigned to Bahari, fixates on the phrase "Porno?" as he's waving a copy of "The Sopranos." Nuance escapes these guys at every turn.
What follows could have fallen easily into a swamp of prison cliches. Instead, Stewart and, vitally, Bernal play this thing with an abundance of patient calm. There's not much in the way of a righteous heart for the journalist to push back against the regime's fickle oppression. No revolutionary himself, Bahari is merely arguing for sanity in the face of Kafkaesque treatment. His specialist, expertly played with restrained menace by Kim Bodnia, determines to break his psyche, while Bahari, under the weight of time and solitude, strains to keep at this chess game.
Despite its obvious earnestness, "Rosewater" is no screed. It's merely a cracking yarn with the horse sense to let the story tell itself. Would that more news coverage do the same.