Camp X-Ray (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Camp X-Ray (2014)

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PFC Amy Cole is assigned to Camp X-Ray, a detention facility in Guantanamo Bay.  There she learns to never call the occupants prisoners, that they are always detainees, and they have life better than any of the soldiers.  The messages of her superiors and other soldiers are questioned by her tenuous relationship with Ali, a man who may be unjustly imprisoned within Camp X-Ray.  Peter Sattler writes and directs Camp X-Ray and stars Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi.

Someone is going to be uncomfortable hereThe Vietnam War fueled decades of art, giving us the likes of Oliver Stone, Taxi Driver, the best of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and saddling the United States government with guilt for years.  It’s unlikely we’ll ever see the same sort of rage and despair coming from art surrounding the second Iraq War.  Collectively, it seems we Americans have decided whatever came from our short-sighted actions after the 9/11 attack were justified.  If movies like Camp X-Ray are any indication, even those who feel we should apologize for the barbaric treatment of innocents caught in our wave of violent retribution are subdued by the aftereffects of that attack.

The opening shots of Camp X-Ray suggest as much, showing us more footage of the smoking towers before cutting to a bound and blinded man in transit to Guantanamo Bay.  Americans can make the connection easily – the towers came down, so we went looking for the people responsible.  But instead of making Camp X-Ray about that blind assault, director and screenwriter Peter Sattler zeroes in on a more conventionally dramatic turn of events.   We’ll watch as Amy (Kristen Stewart) strikes up an uneasy friendship with Ali (Peyman Moaadi) and observe the parallels between their situations.

Camp X-Ray is more of a film about essential humanity and the connections which can form under any circumstances, and less the dehumanizing effect of constant war as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty or American Sniper.  This, for all its good intentions, takes the teeth out of whatever criticism Camp X-Ray could level against the inhuman treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo.   Camp X-Ray becomes a film without consequence, showing the torture as something which just kinda happened, then because of a simple gesture everyone smiles and goes their separate ways.  Just don’t think about the long-term prospects of that happiness at the end, and you’ll be good.

Camp X-Ray posits we will no longer tolerate torture of potential innocents if we just learn about the people behind the hoods, but is a position privileged to those who won't have to face the fallout of those decisions.

Camp X-Ray posits we will no longer tolerate torture of potential innocents if we just learn about the people behind the hoods, but is a position privileged to those who don't need to think about what imprisoned them to begin with.

My issue with Sattler’s approach to Camp X-Ray begins with the basic construction of the plot.  He draws from many sources, the way women have been brutalized in the military, the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, the structural ambivalence which keeps everyone following orders, and the constant fear of another terrorist attack looming on the horizon.  By focusing on so many problems at once he ends up doing a disservice to all of them.  Amy’s sexual assault is written as something she somewhat initiates and apologizes for, a handful of prisoners are demonized and growl in other languages, and the specter of 9/11 invoked in the introduction is rarely commented on in the visuals.

Sattler, with cinematographer James Laxton, instead creates a claustrophobic space for Amy and Ali’s conversations.  This is a good approach, as the various regulations and torments of the institution they serve and are imprisoned by limit their actions, and give their dialogues a directness which frames them as much for the audience as they are for each other.  But there’s just enough room to breathe – visually speaking – and Amy has avenues of escape, be it through a door or walkway, and with the avenues their dialogues become less powder-kegs ready to go off and more theatrical moralizing.  These conversations are just like any other “misfits meet and have a heart to heart” so many movies have done before.  Slowly they warm to each other; he develops a nickname for her, she sticks up for him to her superiors, and they bond.

This bond, however genuine it may seem to us, is undercut by the fact Ali may never leave his cell.  The best scene in Camp X-Ray invokes this when Amy tries to tell Ali he’s taught her so much, and he yells back at her, commanding her to tell him just what she’s learned.  It slices through all the dramatic posturing and gets to the inherent imbalance of their relationship.  But consider this scene against the final passages, the little gift Amy leaves for Ali, and her words.  The sun sets on her satisfaction, going away to a new role, while Ali, despite his momentary happiness, will still be in the cage when the new day dawns.

"Monster" meets monster in one of the scenes which sets Amy's morality apart from her fellow soldiers.

"Monster" meets monster in one of the scenes which sets Amy's morality apart from her fellow soldiers.

This resolution is why Camp X-Ray feels so unsatisfying.  Sattler raises so many issues but never gets around to dealing with them or fully implicating the characters in their actions.  Not every film can be Zero Dark Thirty, or even American Sniper, but so many moments in Camp X-Ray dissipate the emotional stakes by providing conventional dramatic resolutions to complex problems.  Camp X-Ray ends up feeling like a false front, providing closure when the events depicted onscreen do anything but.

Normally, this kind of moralizing would be enough to secure a Dislike, but in addition to the great cinematography Stewart and Moaadi are amazing together.  Stewart is an actress who would have been right at home in silent pictures, as her amazing work in the Twilight series attests to, and here communicates a wealth of complicated emotions in potentially troubling scenes – such as the moment she is trying to navigate her desire with caution in a bathroom encounter with another soldier.  Moaadi is flat-out fantastic, straying right on the edge of sanity and determination with a loud and wavy voice and haunted, unyielding gaze.  He was amazing in A Separation, and shows he can work with English just as powerfully.

As Camp X-Ray closed and the credits rolled, I continued wondering just why so many of these ostensibly critical post-9/11 films fail so often?  Then I remember the smiles and charming note left at the end by Amy.  Strong performances and cinematography aren’t enough, there has to be a willingness to face the machinery which made the violence possible, and face up to the darkness within.  Friendship didn’t leave Ali with his freedom, and it’s a cruel joke that we finish Camp X-Ray still secure in ours.

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Tail - Camp X-RayCamp X-Ray (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Peter Sattler.
Starring Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi.

Posted by Andrew

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