For you see, the real prisoner is… love. That has nothing to do with Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray, per se, but it does reflect my distrust of the films politics, or lack thereof. Camp X-Ray is a film ripe for social and political unpacking: its opening image is a television report of the 9/11 attacks and soon after a Muslim man praying is black-bagged and apprehended. The film’s title refers to a detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, where perceived threats to American national security were held as detainees, and is where much of the film’s action takes place. And the film features a prominent role for a woman in the United State Army, where her gender is perpetually considered a slight. Yet these qualities are details rarely expounded upon, serving as background to its central story of an innocent Muslim man and a naïve American soldier’s friendship in the face of entrapment. In Camp X-Ray, Peter Sattler questions the line between soldier and prisoner, yet relies on a solitary experience as reflective of a broader whole. It’s a politically careless film.
Private Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) is among the new recruits to Camp X-Ray and quickly asserts herself when asked to assist with subduing a detainee. She proves capable, albeit a bit headstrong (in subduing the detainee she absorbs a blow and has a busted lip to show for it). Each day isn’t quite this eventful though, as Sattler is quick to emphasize Cole’s mundane routine. From pushing a meager set of reading material through the detention center confines, the constant security checks wear down the viewer as much as it does Cole. But most excruciating comes in the form of 12-hour surveillance checks on detainees: along with another recruit, she peers into the window of each cell, confirming that captives have not committed suicide. On and on this goes, weighing down her resolve, until she encounters a talkative inmate named Ali (Payman Maadi).
The power of suggestion would have thematically unified Ali and Private Cole’s plights of circumstance, Their feeling of anomie in the face of white male hegemony could have been produced in subtle gestures. Instead, the film is a punch to the gut with its observations, never even remotely suggesting anything but freely divulging everything. As the film progresses, Cole’s detachment (a result of perpetual catcalling and a physically volatile situation with her commanding officer) brings her closer to Ali - the two open up to one another and develop something beyond a good rapport. With cage mesh, metal-clad doors and windows functioning as physical barriers between the two, all Sattler can do is underscore the distance between characters with laughable truisms.
Sattler is a competent if not especially remarkable filmmaker in this debut. It’s nondescript direction that’s ill-equipped to handle such politically charged material. Consider a sequence where detainees go on a hunger strike. Their physical decay is hardly touched upon. Rather, he emphasizes the plight of Army guards trying to convince them to eat. Finally the sequence ends with a detainee being force fed through a tube, only for Sattler to cut before the scene becomes too gruesome. And then it ends. What impact does a sequence like this have? If it exemplifies the futility of nonviolent communal uprising, then Sattler strips it of any political or even spiritual meaning. Rather, Sattler excels with his two central actors, diligent in framing (Stewart peering though tiny rectangular windows into cells is such an example) and careful of pacing. But as mentioned before, all this is undone by such trite dialogue that the whole enterprise proves unconvincing.
To put it bluntly, Camp X-Ray never registers as genuine. The whole thing is a phony exercise that trivializes a serious moral and ethical quandary. Private Cole’s relationship with Ali is troubling because of what it suggests: if you speak English, speak in platitudes, and have a penchant for J.K. Rowling then perhaps you shouldn’t be imprisoned? No other detainee speaks a word of English and simply bark at Private Cole, and subsequently, their imprisonment is the result of a rejection of American ideals, ergo warranted? A more interesting film would’ve seen Private Cole establish a relationship with a guilty prisoner; the material would lend itself more to Sattler’s dramatic sensibility. Instead, we get a squeaky-clean film that remedies all of life’s problems with teen fiction.