Sundance 2014 Review: Camp X-Ray

Camp X-Ray Kristen Stewart

Camp X-Ray would have been the Gitmo movie to make 10 years ago. When it all first came to light, maybe this would have been a good way to start the debate. Maaaaybe it’s even worth preserving for history, but now, more than a decade later, a filmmaker owes it to the issue, and to storytelling as an art form, to go deeper. And by the way, I was totally up for an explosive Gitmo drama. I read the description in the Sundance program guide and I was all, “Eff yeah, K-Stew in a Gitmo movie!” Now I’m only like, “Oh, K-Stew in a Gitmo movie…”

Amy Cole (Stewart) gets stationed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay. She’s educated in the brutal tactics employed there, as well as taking her lumps from one of the brutal detainees held there. The only detainee who really talks to her is Ali (Payman Maadi). Can their friendship survive the complexities of Gitmo? That’s inherently a simplistic, formulaic approach to the issue, but if explored well it could have something to say.

There are several significant problems with Camp X-Ray.

In exploring the complex moral, political and military questions of Guantanamo, Camp X-Ray humanizes exactly one detainee. Just one, that’s all they got. And really you only see two detainees total, and the other is the raving “Death to America” type. We do hear other detainees in other cells cheering the crazy one on and cursing Cole. Make Ali the main character, fine, but if we’re going to tackle the issue of Guantanamo Bay, at least create some supporting characters who show other shades of the spectrum. The sheer casting of four main military characters and only two main detainee characters is a lack of balance, but even if I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to the confined world the film wants to create, you’ve already introduced the ADR device of hearing other detainees. You could at least use that to create the sound of some other personalities.

Not that Ali is the Gitmo Detainee with a Heart of Gold. The psychological games he plays with Cole provide some dramatic tension, but her reactions are so far off the procedure we’ve already learned, we don’t even get to see the protocols in practice before they’re broken. There’s no baseline. Maadi is good in the role, because he gets to be deceptively charming and dangerously vulnerable.

The film is very loud with a lot of bravado, especially in the beginning when the new guards are being trained. I think writer/director Peter Sattler wants it to be confronting but it reads as posing. The louder we scream, the more “real” Gitmo is. There’s a dumb guy who serves as an exposition device, because he doesn’t get the manipulation tactics so they have to be explained to him. It’s not the actor’s fault. A guy’s gotta work, but this is all he’s being asked to play. When said character becomes indoctrinated it is neither a surprise nor a satisfactory character development, let alone an insight into how Guantanamo guards might justify these practices.

At one point Cole confronts a violation of protocols. Guess what happens! You mean this controversial military compound that’s been debated for over a decade isn’t solved by filing a report? It would be great if Cole was a smart enough character to express that filing a report isn’t going to do anything, and maybe faced some turmoil over making a different decision. That’s not asking more of our military, it’s asking more of our movies. Take us further than the entry-level conflict.

I appreciate that Sattler wants to provoke some healthy debate without overstepping into preaching, but it seems all he’s saying is “Guantanamo Bay isn’t so simple.” I suppose there are still folks out there who think that, but you can educate folks who have never thought about Gitmo before and highly political people with the same film. For example, isn’t one aspect of the Guantanamo debate that potentially innocent detainees would grow to hate America for their ordeal and become terrorists when released? That’s not touched on. A movie can’t address everything, but Camp X-Ray doesn't even go deeper into the common public conversations.

Camp X-Ray is so stuck on the basic idea that “things are not simple” that the big character moment is when Cole flat out says this place isn’t as black and white as they said. The dialogue can’t do any more than spell itself out for us. Really? Someone said Guantanamo detainees were all terrorists and you realized there’s more to it than good vs. evil? Welcome to the last 10 years of social discussion/media debate.

Stewart does enter the film biting her lip, which I state objectively just because I know you were all wondering. That’s the only time though. She keeps it real. You could still make a drinking game out of Camp X-Ray though. Drink every time Stewart is drenched in fluid, or expels her own. Drink every time the dumb guy doesn’t understand the subtleties of military protocols.

The whole thing ends in a saccharine coda that’s so preposterous I don’t know whether to be more offended that it’s condescending or that it’s just something that would never happen in any prison situation, military or otherwise. I mean, I saw it coming from Act One. It’s totally set up, but for it to actually happen would mean Camp X-Ray decided not only to be superficial, but to be a total movie fantasy. Hey, if that’s the kind of movie you want to be, fine. 


Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.