There are few government facilities as controversial as the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Its history is as sordid as it is veiled in secrecy. Camp X-Ray hopes to provide a peek behind the curtain, focusing on the damaged humanity of both those imprisoned and those who guard over them. It’s a character driven film, helmed by two strong performances. Unfortunately, saddled with an unimpressive script and misguidedly narrow set of ideals, this film buckles under its own sentimentality.
The film opens on television footage of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center before jumping eight years or so into the future. This gives you an idea of the level of subtlety going on here. Kristen Stewart (Twilight) plays Pvt. Cole, a young soldier from rural Florida out on her first tour of duty. Assigned to Camp Delta, she serves under the uncompromising and amoral Cpl. Ransdell (Lane Garrison, Shooter) and the disenfranchised Colonel Drummond played by John Carroll Lynch (Shutter Island). While on duty, Cole meets Amir Ali (Peyman Moaadi, A Seperation), a man imprisoned at Gitmo since the prison’s founding. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and over the course of her tour, Cole learns more about Amir, herself, and the nature of Guantanamo Bay.
Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray is a dialog-driven film. The lion’s share of the movie is constructed out of lengthy conversations between Cole and Amir, most of them delivered through a small glass window. The two play a game of morality cat and mouse, learning more about each other in the process. The film invites comparison to Silence of the Lambs, Amir calls Cole “Blondie,” and at one point Cole shouts at him to “cut the Hannibal Lecter shit.” Camp X-Ray does not fare well in the comparison. These long scenes would be more palatable if they were balanced with more kinetic, or at least dynamic content. There are explosions of action, but they almost all come in the film’s first act. In a film just shy of two hours long, that’s a lot of stagnancy.
The lack of dynamic visuals in Camp X-Ray can be attributed, to some extent, to its subject matter. If you’ve ever seen picture of Guantanamo Bay, or indeed any high security prison, you know it’s not a picturesque place. But plenty of other films have turned these drab locations into an aesthetic, and that’s something Sattler fails to do.
With nothing else to support it, the film stands on the shoulders of Stewart and Moaadi, who both give good performances. Stewart steps further out from beneath the shadow of Twilight’s Bella as Pvt. Cole. Still playing within her stoic wheelhouse, Stewart manages to give the character and underlying edge of uncertainty and mire. Moaadi is excellent, layering Amir’s anger with sadness, resilience, and compassion. They are compelling to watch and have a surprising chemistry, even through a glass barrier. The performances never achieve transcendent quality, but that’s due more to the script than their performances.
The detention of prisoners at Guantanamo is one of the most politically and morally complicated issues in America today. Sattler almost systematically cuts the nuance out of the film until it’s firmly two-dimensional. This not only makes the film politically suspect, it makes it boring. There is never any doubt that Amir is innocent, nor is there any discussion about the rationalization of keeping prisoners that might be innocent. One of Cole’s fellow privates justifies the prison saying that these are the guys that did 9/11 before being reminded those men died in the attack. The film is critical of the military, which is appropriate, but it isn’t critical in an intelligent way. It paints the soldiers as unintelligent, cruel, or apathetic, but so little attention is paid to them, they might as well be replaced by sneering mannequins in uniform.
And there are gold mines of complex dramatic content that the film refuses to capitalize on. Following a hunger strike, Amir briefly discusses his relationship to another prisoner, calling him an asshole. Despite this distain, he still participates in the man’s hunger strike. It’s a brief moment of complexity in a film that desperately needs more of it. The most compelling aspect of the film is subplot involving a deceitful order Ransdell gives to Pvt. Cole. It places Cole in a legal grey area she doesn’t understand and we see her inability to comprehend the disconnect between moral and military authority. It’s an intriguing bit of characterization, but it’s brief and ultimately disregarded. The film is more interested in blunter political statements.
The Verdict: 2 out of 5
Camp X-Ray makes a compelling case for why most filmmakers should not direct their own scripts. Sattler places a lot of faith in his screenplay, but the writing just isn’t strong enough. The dialog is awkward and overly expository, and the film never achieves complexity beyond that of schoolyard bullying. Stewart is good and Moaadi is even better, but they’re both shackled to a script that is as politically naïve as it is boring. The detention center at Guantanamo Bay is a fascinating and troubling place that deserves to be examined. I can only hope the next film that focuses its attention there will do so with a little more grit.