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Review: Camp X-Ray (2014)

Camp X-Ray (2014)

Directed by: Peter Sattler

Premise: A soldier (Kristen Stewart) assigned to guard duty at the prison in Guantanamo Bay establishes a relationship with a detainee (Peyman Moaadi).

What Works: Camp X-Ray is a stark drama about the life and conditions at the prison in Guantanamo Bay but the themes that emerge are bigger than this particular example. This is a film produced on limited means and with a very intimate scope but it is nevertheless convincing and the production design gives an authentic impression of both the physical and the psychological experience of imprisonment. A lot of the movie involves scenes in which Private Cole, played by Kristen Stewart, patrols the hallways of the prison unit and the filmmakers capture the repetitious banality of prison life. Camp X-Ray is strongest in its opening and closing. The movie begins by introducing the viewer to the procedures of the prison and that plays out very effectively. A lot of expository information is subtly worked into the action instead of explained through phony dialogue and the characters are established well. The movie is led by Kristen Stewart at Private Cole, a small town woman in her first experience overseas, and Stewart’s performance is impressive. The actress is primarily known for her role as Bella in the Twilight series but Camp X-Ray gives Stewart gets a chance to play a very different character and she does an excellent job. Cole is smart and trying to do the right thing but she is overwhelmed by the oppressiveness of prison life, corruption within the ranks, and the impact of solitary confinement on the prisoners. She strikes up a relationship with one of the inmates, played by Peyman Moaadi. The actor has a very difficult part to play. The audience isn’t given very much information about this character and Moaadi uses that ambiguity, alternating moments of anger and aggression with calm and likable beats. Whether the character is actually a good guy or a psychopath that is playing her is unclear and that tension plays out effectively throughout the movie. The ending brings this back and forth to a climax in which issues of freedom and dignity come to a head and the finale is dramatic without being sentimental. 

What Doesn’t: Movies about the War on Terror and its related issues are fraught with potential problems and the detention and treatment of enemy combatants and terrorism suspects has been especially difficult to deal with. This is partly because of the secrecy around the issue but also due to the way in which the public debate over detention has been politicized. This has resulted in filmmakers resorting to partisan hackwork or attempting to take a supposedly neutral position but pulling so many punches that the final product is bland. Because of the subject matter, audiences will come to Camp X-Ray with their own agendas and perspectives. That means how viewers react to what’s on screen is largely going to depend on how it coalesces with their own preexisting beliefs. For some, the film will not go far enough. In the same way that Zero Dark Thirty ran into protest because it did not overtly state that torture was wrong, Camp X-Ray does not walk the viewer through every single talking point regarding the condition and legal disposition of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. What the filmmakers of Camp X-Ray attempt to do is to put a human face on those issues. In that respect the filmmakers largely succeed. However, the pacing of Camp X-Ray is a little slow and the drama flattens in the middle of the film. It’s to the moviemakers’ credit that they resist the temptation to give themselves over to the contrived heroics seen in movies like Rendition, but the drama could have used a jolt throughout the middle of the film.

Bottom Line: A lot of dramatic movies about the War on Terror haven’t been very good but Camp X-Ray is slightly above average in its field. The strong central performances by Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi put a human face on the imprisonment and the filmmakers present viewers with some provocative ideas about a relevant issue.

Episode: #521 (December 14, 2014)