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 naïve 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 “educated” … 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 awoken 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.