The trailer for Rosewater is abysmal. This is important to say up front, because based on the evidence given to me in the trailer, when I attended the press screening for Rosewater I thought I was about to watch a crappy Oscar-bait movie with all the production values, sentimentality, and black-and-white morality of a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie. Seriously: Whoever made this trailer should be fired. Rosewater's trailer is that bad; don't watch it until after you watch the movie.

Really, I should've known that Rosewater wouldn't be as schlocky as it appeared in the trailer. The movie was written and directed by Jon Stewart, and even though he's a first-time writer/director, the high quality of writing on The Daily Show would at least indicate he wouldn't churn out a hacky film for no good reason. Especially since Stewart has a personal reason to make Rosewater: It's about an Iranian-born journalist named Maziar Bahari who returns home to cover the 2009 elections between challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Bahari's guest appearance on a dumb Daily Show skit about the elections is what attracted the Iranian government's attention in the first place. Bahari was imprisoned and interrogated by Iran for 118 days, on the baseless suspicion that he was a spy. (Stewart has joked that he'll make a movie for anyone he accidentally causes to become imprisoned by a dictator.)

The reason the trailer fails to sell Rosewater is that it doesn't capture the film's plentiful and dark sense of humor. Bahari is always joking around—with his pregnant wife, with a driver he hires to introduce him to the opposition party, even with the man the Iranian government has hired to torture the nonexistent truth out of him. He's a funny man, and he recognizes the absurdity of his situation, first as he's reporting on a rigged election in a country with no journalistic freedom and then as he's trapped in a room for months on end with a moronic working-class torturer. The weirdness of the little details in Bahari's memoir—presumably nobody else in that prison was taking comfort by imagining they were listening to Leonard Cohen—help the film ring true and save it from overdramatic biopic hell.

Rosewater is not without its notable imperfections. Gael García Bernal is fine as Bahari. He captures the humor of Stewart's script well, and he comports himself decently in the torture scene, but that sense of immersion is never there; he never sinks into the role the way a movie like this demands. And Stewart makes plenty of first-time directorial mistakes, especially when it comes to the way he clumsily interprets an anti-Ahmadinejad Twitter campaign as a series of hashtags floating over people's heads in the street.

But on the whole, this is a very human—and humane—film about a sane man trapped in a country gone mad. Early in the film, Iranian authorities dig through Bahari's mother's apartment and classify everything they find there, from western horror movies on VHS to folk records, either as "porno" or "Jewish" (it's unclear which of those two is supposed to be worse). But Stewart throughout displays compassion toward the agents of the state. They do bad things, but they're not cartoonish, snarling bad guys. The evil in Rosewater is banal and so, on most days, are the good guys, interested as they are in creature comforts and being entertained. Stewart is clear about the fact that Bahari is a hero, but he harbors no illusions that he's a flawless cinematic idol. He's just a guy, and that's why Rosewater works. recommended