Monday, November 17, 2014

Point and Shoot, Rosewater

Point and Shoot

Documentarian Marshall Curry, whose "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front," was one of four exceptional nominees in what may have been the category's strongest year (2011), loses his way with "Point and Shoot," a case of misplaced priorities in which the story of the Libyan revolution is told through the prism of American adventure-seeker and occasional freelance journalist Matthew VanDyke. It calls to mind all those pictures from the late 80's and early 90's (including some decent ones) in which the struggle against apartheid was reflected almost exclusively through white eyes.

VanDyke, gadding about North Africa in 2008, makes close friendships with some Libyan contemporaries sewing the seeds of the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. After returning briefly to his Maryland home and girlfriend, he heads back to Libya to fight with them, firing his gun with one hand while filming events with the other (hence the title). Curry interviews the girlfriend at length, and guess what? She's happy when he's home, angry when he leaves, nervous when she doesn't hear from him. Ya think? We also get to hear all about VanDyke's OCD. Later, Gaddafi's forces capture and imprison VanDyke for six months, time depicted here via dreary animation that violates the spirit of documentary. For a better ground-level representation of the Arab uprisings, seek out Ken Jacobs' "The Green Wave." 

Jon Stewart has admitted that he wrote and directed "Rosewater" out of guilt over a "Daily Show" prank gone horribly wrong. But why should we all have to suffer for his catharsis? His is the worst kind of message movie, sanctimonious, humorless, and devoid of intellectual interest. Gael García Bernal stars, unconvincingly, as native Iranian Newsweek reporter Maziar Bahari, whose footage of the 2009 street riots following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's tainted re-election ran on the BBC, embarrassing the regime and landing Bahari in solitary (Stewart offers the helpful title card: "Solitary Confinement - Day 1.") 

Stewart devotes most of the movie to the four months of interrogations and torture Bahari endured at the hands of a man known to him only as "Rosewater" (for his ever-present scent). Sophisticated audiences have seen enough movie interrogations over the years that a director must bring a fresh take; here, Bahari's inquisitor (Danish actor Kim Bodnia in a performance without subtlety) is so dumb and sex-obsessed (misidentifying classic Italian films as "pornos" and asking "Who is this Anton Chekhov you liked on Facebook?"), I was amazed how long it took Bahari to outwit him. We also witness Bahari's imagined conversations with his late father and sister, who experienced similar treatment under earlier regimes; their sometimes self-contradictory advice adds nothing to the movie but runtime.

Stewart has written a script devoid of nuance (and directed equally artlessly) in which supporting characters basically feed Bahari straight lines for preachy, speech-y homilies. When confronted with such pervasive anti-intellectualism, the audience has no way to react but with a smug feeling of superiority. Then again, haven't I just described Stewart's entire empire?

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