Camp X-Ray Fails to Look Below the Surface

Camp X-Ray is a film that becomes less interesting as it goes forward. The premise seems bold: a troubled connection develops between a young soldier and a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. The opening scenes draw you in with compelling performances and cinematography. In the end, however, this movie has very little to say. Camp X-Ray is the cinematic equivalent of a “Coexist” bumper sticker slapped on an SUV.

A directorial debut by Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray focuses heavily on the interactions of its two leads, Cole (Kristen Stewart) and Ali (Peyman Moaadi). When private first class Amy Cole is first stationed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay, she tries to conform to the Army’s demands. As she fights the monotony of her work by sharing jokes and stories with detainee Ali Amir, she starts to question both the explicit and implicit military and social laws around them.

Both actors inhabit their roles well. Stewart may have limited range, but the soldier’s restraint plays to her strengths. She shows vulnerability underneath Cole’s façade of stoicism, while Moaadi brings a good balance of magnetism and instability to his character, detained for eight years without trial. But the longer their relationship develops, the more confined—and confining—the film becomes. You can only watch Stewart’s jaw twitch so many times without wanting the story to have a broader scope.

A certain amount of claustrophobia suits the setting, of course. Sattler uses washed-out lighting and anonymous industrial design to create an atmosphere of dehumanization and stagnation. (The crew filmed in a former youth correctional facility.) The minimalist soundtrack often fades away, leaving only the sounds of military routine. One excellent long shot tracks Cole as she pushes a cart of books through the series of locked doors and security checks that barricade a hall of detainee cells. But while the restricted environment works to the movie’s benefit, failures on the narrative level undercut its effectiveness.

Apart from Cole and Ali, the film is filled with types instead of characters: a sexist jerk, a few authority figures who represent the military’s entrenched patriarchal system, a stereotypically feminine woman soldier (whom Cole never acknowledges), and a slew of angry, non-English-speaking detainees. The generic quality of the supporting cast does help to establish Cole’s feeling of alienation as a new recruit and motivate her choice to speak with Ali. This dynamic strikes a false note, however, when it not only isolates the main characters but also divorces them from their political and cultural contexts. There’s something condescending about our introduction to Ali through his interest in Harry Potter books, as if his character must have Westernized tastes to be sympathetic. More fundamentally, Sattler shies away from letting either of them carry the guilt of the sides they supposedly represent.

“You and me, we are at war,” Ali tells Cole. Like many of the more dramatic statements in Camp X-Ray’s script, it feels belabored, as if it’s trying to do the work that the film as a whole fails to do. Sattler depicts neither of the main characters as culpable for anything concrete. Cole and Ali instead tend to come across as victims of a vaguely oppressive system, The Man getting the poor country girl and the Muslim man down. Guantanamo Bay could have been swapped out for a domestic prison in any number of countries without requiring significant changes to the story arc or the rather sentimental ending.

In an early scene, an officer reminds the new guards to always say “detainee” not “prisoner”: “Prisoners are subject to the Geneva Convention. Detainees are not.” This is the boldest political statement in the entire movie. Camp X-Ray may be engaging enough if you’re looking for a two-person drama, but don’t expect it to make good use of its controversial backdrop.

Grade: C+

An interesting but cowardly character study.