Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Guantanamo Bay has been a source of disagreement in the United States, particularly after its controversial, extended use during the War on Terror. Camp X-Ray, a film that attempts to dramatize life within the prison through the eyes of both a soldier and a detainee, opens with a man practicing seemingly illegal acts in a Middle Eastern country as the camera pans over many cell phones lying on a table. The man is then seen praying, only for him to be taken in that vulnerable moment by U.S. soldiers, eventually imprisoned in GTMO for eight years. This man is Ali (Peyman Moaadi), a relatively harmless individual that becomes treated like the terrorists involved the 9/11 attacks. He is not a prisoner, mind you, for that would be an inaccurate description and require a certain amount of rights that the U.S. government cannot allow. Rather, he is a detainee, meaning that he is denied most rights and can be treated as a threat to the United States. He lives a life of hell.
Enter Cole (Kristen Stewart), a newly deployed soldier whose first assignment seems to be far different than she was expecting. Upon arrival, the soldiers do not see the threats that they had previously heard about, instead seeing relatively normal human beings in captivity with no chance of escape. They live bleak lives and the soldiers understand that, but they must follow orders. Cole has left her life in a small town in hopes of finding more meaning and escaping her seemingly overbearing mother. Family becomes a necessity for motivation in a secluded life as a soldier, so by extension Cole distances herself from a potential chance at happiness. Nonetheless, she interacts with the other men in her platoon but notices that she doesn’t exactly fall into a normal role. She’s not the bombshell blonde that the other men go after, nor is she aggressive or manly enough to make the prisoners feel less threatened by her femininity. She spends much of her time handing them books, blacking out females in newspapers, and patrolling hallways repeatedly and thoroughly.
Cole and Ali’s lives don’t seem that far removed from one another, so naturally a bond occurs. They go through their rough patches, particularly as Ali sees her as an initial threat and Cole must follow protocol when needed. But their friendship lasts as a reminder of human compassion passing through any circumstance. The problem I have with Camp X-Ray, something that many have claimed as its strongest suit, is the embattled nature of Cole’s demeanor and Stewart’s performance in the lead. Her expressions fail to subtly explore the trappings of her character, proving her a mismatch for an acting talent as strong as Moaadi (best known for his outstanding work in Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece A Separation). I also never connected with the characters or the emotional heft of the film as much as I needed to appreciate such a gloomy, morbid look at wrongful imprisonment. Ali is compassionate and occasionally manipulative, but his conversations with Cole prove that a strong individual shines through his exterior. Writer-director Peter Sattler has an excellent idea at the forefront of his film, and it allows for minor social commentary, yet the film ultimately feels like a repetitive foray into themes that have been tackled more appropriately in other Iraq War-minded efforts. Camp X-Ray has admirable goals and lofty ideas surrounding the recent American conflicts, but it squanders interesting characters on a bloated running time and overly abstract dialogue.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)