Those expecting a final word on what really goes on at Guantanamo Bay are likely to be disappointed, for Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi deliver fittingly enigmatic performances in Peter Sattler’s drama about one of modern day’s most captivating lacunas.
Despite the movie’s intro alluding to an action-packed lovesong to the military, and Corporal Ransdell later describing its setting, Guantanamo Bay detention camp, as much of a “war zone” as Iraq or elsewhere, Camp X-Ray is a film of restraint and offers a thoughtful digression from those Gitmo narratives prior.
Peter Sattler’s directorial debut, which borrows its name from one of Guantanamo’s former detention facilities, follows Cole (Kristen Stewart), a young private, as she undertakes her first contracted mission in the military, stationed as one of Guantanamo Bay’s many guards and given the paradoxical task, as Ransdell (Lane Garrison) reminds us early on, not to prevent detainees escaping but to keep them alive. The film is particularly effective when delivering the ambiguities underpinning war and its discontents; Stewart is heard making the careful distinction between prisoners and detainees, the latter falling outside the remit of the Geneva Convention and thus without entitlement to basic human rights.
Committed to the cause, Cole volunteers to be part of the Initial Reaction Force (IRF) team on her very first day – a scaled-down riot squad deployed in cases of non-compliant detainees. Not dissuaded by either the brutality of the guards, or the hatred of inmates – taking a fist and a mouthful of spit to the face during the cell invasion – Stewart bears an expression of opacity throughout and, whilst her stoicism has previously been taken for inexperience, it is nonetheless well-placed here in what never falters as being a profoundly disturbing film of ethical aspirations. For these early scenes of violence are soon forgotten and Camp X-Ray, despite its premise, is not a film about conflict or, rather, it has at its centre an internal conflict that deliberates the rights and wrongs of gitmo, and the commonalities between those on either side of the cell door.
This moral ambivalence is embodied by Stewart’s kindling friendship with Amir Ali (Peyman Moaadi), an eight-year detainee, known as #471, who we’re encouraged to read as being falsely imprisoned, and who possesses an intelligence, wit and cunning that consistently tests the patience of squaddies. Writer-turned-actor Moaadi’s evocative performance as the wronged man, gives the thin plot a much needed lift; the episode in which Ali demands the final instalment of the Harry Potter saga makes for a comedy interlude to rival any. It’s the relationship between Ali and Cole, and the rapport between Moaadi and Stewart, where the film is utterly compelling, and where Sattler fosters a sense of mutual alienation between the two. A couple of classic, if predictable, montages juxtaposing detainer and detainee as they eat sub-standard food and salute their respective gods – the raised American flag and Allah – and the reciprocity the film strives for is expertly achieved. That dissolution of the dialectic driving imperialism comes to its climax at the film’s close during a tense stand-off, again between Stewart and Moaadi, as the latter – bereft at Stewart’s imminent departure – considers ending it all. It’s here that we’re finally provided a view of the man without him being obscured by either the cell window or yard fence; as the point-of-view shot oscillates between Stewart and Moaadi, distinguishing right from wrong, Camp X-ray concludes, is an impossibility.
Amongst exploring the complexities of war and justice, and some extensive use of close-up, Camp X-Ray does however find time to make more nuanced observations as to the role of women in the military. From the very beginning, Stewart is marked out as one of few females on the block and despite the Corporal reassuring her after the volatility of the inmates – “these guys just don’t like girls” – it’s arguably in the military that she faces the harshest prejudice. That the film never quite develops this second strand of plot is its greatest failing and, though Stewart is called to attention as a “female soldier” by both directly her superior and homemade mother, that position is never complicated and Cole is not afforded the opportunity to open dialogue on some of those ideas around femininity and the military.
It’s when Sattler sets aside those more straightforward political agendas, that Camp X-Ray is a visceral narrative, anchored by two engrossing performances, and a film that is bound to appeal to audiences in the post-9/11 culture of scepticism.