"Camp X-Ray" Only Looks So Deep Review

It's not as black and white as they said it would be.

By now, there isn't a human on the planet that hasn't heard of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Some detainees--not prisoners, mind you--have been there for a decade or more, spanning all levels of culpability in terrorist activity from none to heinous. And yet, despite its infamy, all efforts to resolve the issue have failed. One of President Obama first acts in office was to promise closing the facility and thereby force a solution, which came to nothing. So either Camp X-Ray (2014) is a narrative film that is guilty of being made too late, delaying a forceful, humanist argument, or a shameful reminder that we've allowed a dark (if abstract) American phenomenon to continue. Of course, it is both. It is the kind of narrative film that will go further to make people seriously consider the implications and possible solutions than the legions of documentaries and news reports could have been.

There isn't much to like about Pvt. Cole's (Kristen Stewart) new assignment as an MP at Guantanamo Bay. On top of all the human degradation on display, she has to deal with seemingly endless scrutiny she undergoes by being a woman. The latter is a frustration she can express to some degree, but her ethical struggle with the detainees has to remain a mostly internal one. While on "the walk", the suicide watch detail for detainees in solitary confinement, she takes an interest in a garrulous detainee named Ali (Peyman Moaadi) who is teetering on the edge of sanity. They form a connection that is looked upon with suspicion and anger by those on their "side".

There's a strong tendency in those who would like to arbitrarily whittle down their viewing choices to categorize and, thus, dismiss. "Oh, I've seen that movie a million times" or "do we need another prison movie?" or "I bet it's preachy" or "I'm not in the mood for something like that". One can imagine someone saying all of these things about Camp X-Ray and being relatively justified in those statements. That is, if by "a million times" they mean half of once and by "preachy" they mean about something important that they're ignoring. Mood is the best because, like lower back pain, can be proposed without contradiction. We all do it, of course. I didn't see this movie in theaters. We forget that "prison movies" includes Shawshank Redemption (1994), Hunger (2008)--which most resembles Camp X-Ray--Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Starred Up (2013) among so many others. They aren't always a romp, but our anticipation of pain keeps us from the emotional satisfaction those movies bring.

Camp X-Ray only breaks new ground on the particular subject it is considering: Guantanamo Bay. But this is very fertile territory for drama where two kinds of people are so often and easily dehumanized by the media: terrorists/detainees and soldiers/guards. We don't typically consider the emotional plight of these people because either we hate what they (possibly) stand for or because their uniform makes them unrecognizable. Another aspect of the film that is original, at least to me, is the mature depiction of a woman in the military. G.I. Jane (1997) and Courage Under Fire (1996) are...uh...fine in their own way, but essentially depict badasses under extreme circumstances. Camp X-Ray is distressing, but not a kinetic scenario. Kristen Stewart takes up the character with a great degree of vulnerability and transparent toughness that is thoroughly convincing. Her stuttering discomfort borders on the one-note, cold reading side, but you can file this under the "can real be movie real?" category of acting dilemmas.

Like so many low budget films these days, writer-director Peter Sattler turns in a film with a bold, impressionistic style that is a pleasure to look at and, as they say, gives you all the feels. At its core, Camp X-Ray is a simple attempt to humanize a touchy subject and highlight brutalities we allow in our armed services and detention of terrorist suspects. This is visceral and poignant. Such things never lose their vitality, when done well, by repetition. This film is very well done.

Bonus Features

A making-of featurette and a trailer.

"Camp X-Ray" is on sale June 2, 2015 and is rated R. Drama. Written and directed by Peter Sattler. Starring Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


New Reviews