Rosewater is “bubble” gum. It’s specially made by The Daily Show host Jon Stewart to give his like-minded followers something they think they can chew on. In the partisan fashion of the day, Stewart’s glibly politicized audience live in a bubble but don’t think beyond it, and Rosewater doesn’t force them to.
In a shameless act of solipsism, Stewart makes his motion picture writing-directing debut by dramatizing the story of a Daily Show guest, journalist Maziar Bahari, whose assignment in Iran was jeopardized by his appearance on the Stewart cable program. (Some might consider that just desserts.) After the 2009 election of Ahmadinejad, Iranian police detained and tortured the Tina Brown Newsweek reporter (more just desserts?). The Iranians took Bahari’s facetious TV stint as proof that he was an anti-government spy with the same certainty that Stewart’s devotees take Stewart to be a pure, brave, honest truth-teller.
Stewart does not appear in the film (stepping away from Bahari’s culpability) but he relays this story self-righteously — as if to defend The Daily Show from accusations of political bias, propaganda, or blame. Stewart relays Bahari’s case with the same disingenuousness that has made him a major player in U.S. media and politics. He upholds the Left Liberal proposition that its political view is inarguably correct by indulging in snide sarcasm – the ultimate rebuttal; it ridicules any different viewpoint as that of GOP stooges or fascist opposition. Rosewater centers on an Ahmadinejad henchmen, an interrogator named Jabadi (Kim Bodnia), whom Bahari can identify only by his offensive rosewater cologne.
The stink of political opposition is Stewart’s real subject. Rosewater is about discomforting disagreement — the torture of argument and discourse when one is so righteous that discourse seems unnecessary, an inconvenience. And reviewers have responded to this agitprop victim’s fantasy with the unquestioned, arrogant solidarity that has obliterated modern media objectivity. Rosewater doesn’t have the moral and political intelligence of 2012’s Capital by Costa-Gavras, a left-leaning filmmaker but an even-handed political dramatist. Stewart’s small-minded film revels in Left media arrogance. Its pretend complexity merely promotes Stewart’s vision as absolute.
Adapting Bahari’s memoir, Then They Came For Me, Stewart positions Bahari’s journalistic role (and his errors) as equivalent to martyrdom. This self-righteousness is neither interesting nor vindicating but it is part of a train of thought that some conservatives may desperately need to be understand. Liberals are beyond understanding it; they simply live by it, convinced of their own moral superiority. Liberals are adept at reinforcing their insular bubble as an absolute — a widespread, media-centered social force.
Rosewater is no big deal as a movie. It’s no more authentic than the insipid Argo but it confirms that the Jon Stewart phenomenon — a comic turned into what Faye Dunaway in Network referred to as “a strip Savaronola” — illustrates an undeniable change in our politicized popular culture. (Only a lunatic would condone a political program on something called Comedy Central.) Stewart is from the “director as superstar” generation and seeks that same dated acclaim. Rosewater (with its psychological F/X where Bahari sees memories of dead family members in shop windows) mixes ambition and hubris; it’s as if Stewart attained the sanctity of Lenny Bruce without going to the trouble of ODing.
Stewart’s prominence has become the dream of many post-Woodward-Bernstein journalists in the Obama era. (Where would MSNBC be without them?) Many reviewers applauded Rosewater, making allowances for its weaknesses and flaws — including the dull lead performance by sad-eyed Lefty poster boy Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari. This is not an honest aesthetic response, but its obvious political position is more revealing than the film itself: Stewart is liberal media’s ringleader and liberal critics in turn act as his cheerleader. Salon published a commendation that praised “Stewart’s own fight for reason, truth and informative reporting.” It reminded me of a Salon film blogger recently overheard boasting at a screening: “I also do a political column. It takes a lot of thought.”
The bubble-headed blogger’s point was that film reviewing required no thinking. That’s Jon Stewart’s ideal audience. Like the in-studio performing seals who clap and hoot at every one of his snarky statements, like the New Yorker editor who boasted to Charlie Rose “I get my news from The Daily Show,” these typically prejudiced journalists are satisfied that Stewart’s TV outlet complements their biases, doesn’t challenge their prejudices or force them to think outside party lines. The undistinguished Rosewater (made for inhabitants of the Left’s bubble) does the same.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.