There are a couple bothersome things about this film that get in the way of its working well as a “true story.” It’s about a journalist, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), born in Iran but writing for Newsweek as an American reporter, being arrested and imprisoned in Iran while covering their 2009 elections. Kept mostly in solitary confinement for 100 days, the movie is about Bahari’s struggles to remain sane while continually protesting his innocence, even as he was forced to sign documents that in fact admitted that he was a spy. The first problem is that Bernal is Mexican – not Iranian or even remotely Persian. His English is thickly accented, but then, so is everyone else’s in this movie, so maybe the director (first-timer Jon Stewart) assumed nobody would notice the difference. Well, at the very least, Bernal is an accomplished actor and he is convincing in the reporter’s role.
But why do we show him confined in a cell for 100 days with his hair never getting longer (nor his beard, which is always the nouveau-stylish scruffy stubble)? They didn’t bring him food or water regularly, but they made sure he had his daily sessions with his hair stylist? C’mon. You guys can do better than that.
For somebody who supposedly endured beatings and torture, Bernal doesn’t look very beat-up, either. Perhaps that can be attributed to an intention on his captors’ part for not marking up his face for when he would inevitably appear before the television camera in order to renounce his sinful ways, his Western imperialism that poses a constant threat to the Grand Revolution of the Ayatollah, and now carried on with sufficient missionary zeal by the current Iranian President, who absolutely must be re-elected in order to keep Iran pure from pornographic American influence.
Yes, the clear implication is that the elections were rigged. The alleged overwhelming majority supposedly wanted to give our Iran-for-the-Iranians incumbent demagogue a bully pulpit for four more years. It’s not even mentioned that he was defeated last year by the very opponent whom he portrayed as the Westernized devil and imperialist puppet.
Of course it’s not very entertaining to watch someone languish in solitary confinement. His dead father appears to him, encouraging him, because he, too, was once a political prisoner. Bahari even imagines talking to his pregnant wife. Nothing helps his mood more than when his jailer, thinking that actually talking to her would be more tortuous, arranges to put her on the phone. Bahari is now gleefully fortified by her assurances of her steadfast love, and strongly encouraged by her quick reporting of continued efforts to release him. Though when he was finally released, apparently the person who held the vigil at the prison gate was his mother.
The only mildly amusing part is when it finally occurs to Bahari (through one of his dream-images of his perceptive wife) that his jailer might also have a weakness to be exploited. So Bahari speaks of decadent nights in hotel rooms in foreign cities, which so titillates his jailer that he forgets to be rough for a while. Ah, the universal appeal of prurience. Who would have guessed it as a passive-aggressive counter-terrorism measure?
As a short documentary, this might have held more interest, but as a feature-length film, it’s too limiting and disappointing for anyone but the most fervent pro-Iranians. Long live Babylon? (Psalm 137)
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.