An exciting debut from Sattler but is much more a showcase for the actors than an astute political observation.
Camp X-Ray opens like a tense thriller, with the capture of Ali Amir (Peyman Moaadi) and his transportation to Guantanamo Bay, played out in quick, rapid cuts and an imposing soundtrack. The film may start with intensity but this isn’t the tone of the film overall. Camp X-Ray takes a gentler approach to conveying the horror of the now infamous Guantanamo Bay, than say Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. If Bigelow was focused on the earthquake-like effects of the war on terror, the extreme violence and the desperate hunt for Osama Bin Laden, then director Peter Sattler is much more interested in the aftershocks. Camp X-Ray examines what happens after the terrorists have been captured and are beyond being useful. The film explores what life is like for those who have been forgotten, left to spend the rest of their lives in a detainee camp, and those whose job it is to guard them.
Camp X-Ray follows Private Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), a new recruit at the camp, who slowly develops a relationship with the enigmatic Ali Amir, a detainee shown in the opening sequence of the film. The development of the relationship between these two characters drives the film forward and is captivating to watch. Fueled by tremendous performances by the film’s two leads. Peyman Moaadi adeptly manages the delicate balance between conveying Ali’s charisma and vulnerability as he strikes up a friendship with Cole (Kristen Stewart) through a series of conversations with her as she patrols the hall outside his cell. Stewart comfortably plays the awkward and distant Cole, who struggles to deal with the social politics between the guards. This is particularly the case concerning her relationship with the overtly masculine Randsell (Lane Garrison), who harbors resentment towards her after she rejects him at a party. Yet as Cole, Stewart also displays a warmness not shown in her earlier films as she opens herself emotionally to Ali and reveals the effect of the job on her conscience.
Ali and Cole’s relationship develops around Ali Amir’s search for the last Harry Potter book within the prison library. The innocent naiveté of the friendship’s beginnings may have been trite in lesser actors’ hands, but here manages to be heartwarming and deeply moving. The surrealist nature of a ‘terrorist’ reading Harry Potter conveys the innate similarities between Ali and Cole, despite the divide between them. These similarities include the fact that both characters are trapped, even if Cole, unlike Ali, has ‘imprisoned’ herself voluntarily within the confines of the camp. Both characters are struggling against the dehumanizing effects of Camp X- Ray; in particular Cole is taken aback with the casual nature with which her contemporaries regularly dismiss the human rights of the detainees.
The relationship between the Cole and Ali is compelling but unfortunately the characters around them aren’t given much depth. This is particularly the case with Randsell, the captain in charge of Cole, who becomes a caricature of the masculine tough army guy. Given Sattler’s surreal juxtaposition between the guards’ lives at the camp and their ordinary life outside, this seems a misstep. A scene portraying the guards forcefully restraining a detainee and leaving him strapped in a chair is saddled next to a scene of the guards partying like teenagers at summer camp. Also baffling is the presentation of Ali as entirely literate and charming, while every other detainee appears wild and uncommunicative. Reducing Cole’s contemporaries to military stereotypes ignores the complexity of the politics that surround Guantanamo Bay. Reducing Ali’s cell mates to vacant, wandering eyed, lunatics, also dilutes some of the impact of the film as an intellectual, political thought-piece, which attempts to offer an insightful examination of the ethical questions that have arisen from America’s response to the 9/11 attacks.
In the end, Camp X-Ray is an exciting debut from Sattler but is much more a showcase for the actors than an astute political observation on the current war on terror.