Greetings again from the darkness. A surefire method to get attention
for a movie is "the feature film directorial debut of Jon Stewart". The
popular comedian/commentator/talk show host makes an exceptional living
getting people to laugh and think, so a politically charged story based
on real life events should be right in his proverbial wheelhouse. Mix
in the fact that Stewart and his show are linked to those events, and
now you have some real intrigue.
Maziar Bahari was a Newsweek political correspondent sent to cover the
2009 Presidential election in Iran. His experience led him to write the
book "Then They Came For Me: A Family's Story of Love, Captivity and
Survival", on which the film is based. Bahari was a young husband who
left his pregnant wife at home for what he thought would be an
assignment lasting but a few days. Instead, by the time he returned
home, he had been held captive in Evin Prison for 118 days suspected
of being a foreign spy, and incessantly interrogated and subjected to
psychological and physical torture.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Bahari with a naive and amiable spirit that
contrasts sharply with what we might envision as the traits necessary
for success in his line of work. It does work well to allow the viewer
a quick connection with the character as we later pull for him during
the toughest moments. The film brings light to the importance of a free
press, and the dangers inherent otherwise. As the Iranian government
accuses Bahari of being a spy, it's easy for us to understand the
blurred line between spy and journalist. Those with the most to hide
are often the most paranoid.
When Bahari first arrives in Iran, happenstance leads him to cross
paths with a taxi driver who enthusiastically introduces him to the
the "not Ahmadinejad" faction. These are the
revolutionaries working to bring enlightenment to the government
through their candidate. As you are probably aware, the election
instead brought what Bahari's mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand
and Fog) calls "the same old sh**". In other words, despite seemingly
overwhelming support, their candidate lost in what they can only assume
was another fixed election.
Bahari's personal story is the focus of the film much more than an
investigative look into Iranian elections. He films the protests of the
election aftermath, and the next morning he is awakened to a search of
his personal belongings. The accusations begin with such laughers as
having his "Sopranos" DVD classified as a pornography collection.
Laughs are short-lived though, as Bahari is arrested and swept away to
the prison. The torture he faces is nothing like what we witnessed in
Zero Dark Thirty, but the psychological warfare waged by his
interrogator (Kim Bodnia) is designed to break down Bahari emotionally
so that he admits to being a spy (an enemy of the government).
We certainly gain insight into Bahari's personal struggle to maintain
his hope and position. Visions of his father and sister appear to him
in his cell and provide advice. These apparitions seem more
level-headed and passionate than Bahari was even before his arrest. And
therein lies the biggest issue with the movie. We know how the story
ends, so the suspense is non-existent. Instead, we are somehow to
relate to the daily misery endured by Bahari, but that just isn't
captured in a two hour movie. The closest we get is a remarkable
sequence where Mr Bernal (as Bahari) moves to the music (in his head)
of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love". This is a man
clinging to hope for his future with memories from the past. It's a
very touching moment.
The need for a free press is obvious from this story, but it's unclear
whether another point made in the movie was intentional. Bahari has his
camera holstered during the violent election aftermath until he is
disparaged by one of the rebels
something along the lines of "you
have a weapon and choose not to use it". This moment raises the
question of whether these political correspondents are so concerned
about personal danger that they let that affect the stories they tell
and the pictures we see. This may be the most powerful question raised
by the film, and one not easy to answer.
Lastly, it does seem at times that the movie plays as Jon Stewart's
tribute to Maziar Bahari, which makes us wonder whether Stewart's
burden of guilt from his (unintended) role in Bahari's capture was the
driving force behind the making of the film. It comes across a bit
light on issues and heavy on hero-worship (apology). Still, mixing in
actual news footage and the role of social media, keeps us from
forgetting that this is a real man plunged into a dangerous situation
simply because he was trying to show and tell the truth.