[Note: This is a re-post of my Camp X-Ray review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release this weekend.]
In Camp X-Ray, writer/director Peter Sattler attempts to chronicle life at Guantanamo Bay through the eyes of a young female private, played by Kristen Stewart. It’s touchy subject matter for sure, and though Guantanamo Bay has been no stranger to controversy, there are plenty of avenues worth exploring. While the film features a compelling central relationship between the aforementioned young private and a foreign detainee, it too often veers into melodrama or goes for the easy cliché, making for somewhat of a mixed bag. Read my full review after the jump.
Stewart plays a young private named Amy Cole who has been newly stationed at Guantanamo Bay. In the opening scenes of the film, we see Cole go through orientation. Right off the bat her superior officer makes it known that Gitmo’s inhabitants are to be referred to as “detainees” and not “prisoners,” since the latter is covered under the Geneva Convention. Cole is told upfront that her job is not to keep the detainees from escaping, but instead to keep them alive (ie. preventing suicide), which is clearly very different from what the young private expected of her duties. Cole’s main task at Guantanamo Bay is watch duty, in which she patrols a small cell block of detainees, going window to window every three minutes to check in on them.
As the story progresses, Cole comes into contact with an detainee named Ali (played by A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi), who has been at Guantanamo Bay for eight years. Ali is an openly uncooperative detainee, but he’s also inquisitive; on Cole’s first day, he charismatically talks to her about how much he likes the Harry Potter books, but when Cole tries to remain professional and rebuffs his attempts at conversation, things turn nasty. As Cole settles into her job, though, she starts to loosen a bit and she and Ali strike up a friendly relationship. There are a number of lengthy scenes between these two characters that are fantastic. The actors have great chemistry, and Moaadi brings an excellent balance of frustration, desperation, and anger to his character. However, when Sattler tries to show Cole interacting with her fellow soldiers and officers, things get dodgy.
The script veers into melodrama territory quite often, especially towards the beginning of the film when Sattler attempts to show the burgeoning bond between the new soldiers. Levity is fine, but cheesy jokes and tired clichés take away from the central conceit of the film, which raises far more interesting and difficult points. Because these detainees are suspected terrorists, does that mean they’ve forfeited their basic human rights? Is it moral to treat another human in an inhumane manner, no matter what they have done? When does punishment cross the line into torture, and is prolonged detention without explanation the ultimate form of torture? These are tough questions, and when Sattler chooses to linger on them the film excels, but when his focus turns to comradery or animosity amongst the soldiers, the film falters and feels more like a TV series on The CW.
That being said, Sattler proves to be a formidable talent behind the camera as he drums up plenty of impressive visuals throughout the film. The filmmaker is able to capture long dialogue scenes between Cole and Ali in a fluorescent-lit hallway with a mixture of immediacy and intimacy that keeps things from ever getting stale. Some of the tired tendencies from the other portions of the film occasionally bleed into the Cole/Ali scenes, especially when Sattler feels the need to lay a theme or idea on too thickly, but for the most part these remain the most engaging and impressive portions of the film.
Stewart is fine in the role of Cole, and while Moaadi brings a lot to the relationship of the two central characters, Stewart has a little trouble with some scenes that require more range than she’s able to portray. The actress falls back on biting her lip or looking frustrated one too many times, and while she’s solid in many scenes, there are a few where I found myself wondering what another actress could have brought to the role. Stewart is stretching herself, which is admirable, but she’s just not able to tap into the raw emotions that the character requires.
Though the script could do with less melodrama and more nuance, Camp X-Ray is compelling more often than not. Moaadi is excellent in the role of Ali, and he and Stewart are able to play off of each other quite well. The issues surrounding Guantanamo Bay would probably be better served by a more consistent script, and while Camp X-Ray never reaches its full potential with regards to further exploring those themes, it remains a mostly solid character drama.