In the current volatile climate of increasing international tension caused by terrorism, Peter Sattler chose to tackle a boiling hot subject with his first feature as a director. He’s dipped his fingers in an assortment of filmmaking jars, from being an on-set dresser for David Gordon Green to dabbling in graphic design for “Star Trek,” but with his directorial debut, “Camp X-Ray,” Sattler zooms in with a microscopic look at the current political milieu and paints the ideology of the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp (Gitmo) with one brush. Thanks to his friend Green (who executive produced the project and was instrumental with his support), media magnet Kristen Stewart, and one of Iran’s most recognizable thespians in Peyman Moaadi, Sattler was successful in getting his film off the ground for a subject that’s clearly close to his heart (he wrote the original screenplay). Unfortunately, as clear as the lines between good and evil are in the film, so too is the line between the inexperienced Sattler and the talent he’s working with.
The film wastes no time in stating the philosophy it unwaveringly follows to the closing credits. The images of the twin towers collapsing are seen on the television set owned by Ali (Moaadi), a Muslim preparing for prayer. In the middle of doing so, he is taken and in a deportation montage, we follow him as he’s transported to Gitmo. With no knowledge of his past, his life, or his beliefs, the only thing we can be certain of is his innocence and faith. Eight years later, Army Private First Class Amy Cole (Stewart) stands out as the only woman in a group of recruits attentively listening to the rules of the house dictated by Corporal Randy Ransdell (Lane Garrison). “This is still a war zone,” is one of many things the Corporal makes sure the newbies get through their head, and it won’t be the last time “war” is used to describe the relationship between the detainees and the guards. When someone asks why they have to use “detainees” instead of “prisoners,” Amy is swift with the response: “Prisoners are subject to the Geneva convention, detainees are not.” Subtlety and nuance, it would seem, are imprisoned as forcefully as innocent people in this camp.
After going through the experience of her first altercation with a detainee during a routine IRF (Initial Reaction Force), Amy is assigned to bring books to the prisoners and guard them during the day shift. This is how she first meets Ali, the intrepid, talkative, and proud Muslim who is continuously tortured—among other torments, he’s not allowed to read the seventh book in the ‘Harry Potter‘ series. Two years he’s been waiting for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and he teases Amy over it. He nicknames her “Blondie” and persuades her into talking back by recognizing how much in common they have saying, “We are both stuck here. It is boring for both of us.” Amy’s perception of her superiors, and her own role as a member of the U.S. military defending American freedom, starts to gradually crumble, thanks to the human connection she makes with Ali. Her treatment in the camp by the chauvinistic corporal and indifferent Colonel (John Carroll Lynch) only help to foster her growing disillusionment with a system she’s promoted and looked up to all her life.
Whether you watch “Camp X-Ray” fully aligning yourself with its politics, or distancing yourself from them, a clear separation of cinema and state pervades the film’s merits and demerits. Of the former there are sadly only a handful, while the latter boasts large numbers even though they all stem from a single source. Some critics call Stewart miscast in the lead role, due to the obvious lack of any true military grit her characters shows. We would beg to differ. The obvious lack of true military grit is the whole point of her Amy Cole, a role the young Stewart tackles with admirable fortitude. In fact, this could be the first role that she entirely owns and where we’re hard pressed to imagine anyone else in. Her standoffish gaze works in the favor of a steadfast soldier, and once Amy’s blinders start to come off, so too does Stewart’s talent for subtle emotion. She can add “Camp X-Ray” to her recent roles in “Still Alice” and “Clouds Of Sils Maria” as proof that if you’re not taking her seriously, you’re grossly out of touch. Helping her along the way is Moaadi, most known for his brilliant turn in Asghar Farhadi’s art-house hit “A Separation.” Even while speaking some of the film’s most trite dialogue, Moaadi brings a distinguished class to the role of a much-too-one-dimensional character. Meanwhile, Jess Stroup’s score is full of harmony that illustrates the tense atmosphere as movingly as the awkwardly-on-purpose chemistry between Stewart and Moaadi.
It is in Sattler’s screenplay where all the film’s demons are found. Any sense of real attachment, genuine conflict, or emotional build-up to the cathartic climax are subdued and killed before ever getting a chance to reach us, thanks to a self-aware script bordering on the ridiculous. Can it be possible that a soldier who cites the Geneva convention and brings books to the detainees can tell one, “Thought you only read the Koran” with a straight face? When a soldier comments on the brutality of a certain program the detainees go through, the corporal whips back “And what are you? The Red Cross?” The film is full of examples like this, which ultimately render it wholly uninspiring and ineffective. “Camp X-Ray” is as transparent in its message as the title suggests, and the scan shows a malignant tumor in the very bones of the film’s structure. An on-the-nose approach smothers all subtext into submission and leaves nothing of interest alive. [C-]