The backstory alone is killer. Why would Daily Show host Jon Stewart make his filmmaking debut with the true story of Maziar Bahari, the Iranian journalist jailed for 118 days on charges of espionage, after he covered Iran's 2009 presidential elections? It seems the married, London-based Bahari had also irked authorities by guesting on Stewart's show in a satirical skit about spying. A movie of Bahari's 2011 memoir was the least Stewart could do.
That the movie is as tense and chilling as it is owes much to Stewart's keen eye for the way humor surfaces even in the dark places. And there's no resorting to the thriller tropes that helped sell Argo. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal plays Bahari. He's exceptional in his scenes with the first-rate Kim Bodnia, the interrogator who mercilessly mindfucks Bahari with accusations and avoidance. Dubbed Rosewater for his scent, the character is less a clichéd villain than a bureaucrat corrupted by a corrupt system. Kudos to Stewart for making Rosewater more than an earnest plea for journalistic freedom. He makes it personal.