Directed by: Peter Sattler.
Written by: Peter Sattler.
Starring: Kristen Stewart (Cole), Peyman Moaadi (Ali), Lane Garrison (Ransdell), Joseph Julian Soria (Rico), Julia Duffy (Cole's Mother), John Carroll Lynch (Colonel Drummond).
As an actress, Kristen Stewart is at her best when she does the least. She can be a great actress – one that uses her physical movement, and face to suggest a lot even when it appears like shes not doing much. She has taken some (mostly unfair) hits over the years for her performances in the Twilight movies – none of which were good, but none of which were really her fault – how could she possibly make such a poorly conceived, and written role work. For those of us who liked before the Twilight films, he performance in Camp X-Ray is a welcome return to form for the talented young actress. It's also nice that the film pairs her with an equally good actor – Peyman Moaadi (most famous for A Separation) – and the two of them make their scenes together work. Unfortunately the movie itself is not very well written – and takes some overly clichéd narrative turns, especially in the third act, which takes an interesting premise in the least interesting way possible. The performances here are significantly better than the movie itself.
In the film, Stewart stars as Cole – a young Army Private who is assigned to Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay, where her job will be to supervise the "detainees". She is told early in the film not never use the word prisoner – and she knows why, because prisoners are subject to the Geneva convention, and detainees are not. She is also told that her job will not be to keep the detainees from escaping – the walls do that – but to keep them alive. No one is to kill themselves on their watch – it would make them look bad.
Most of the inmates respond to her in the way we expect – they do not like her, they do not speak English, and basically wither berate and ignore her. These Muslim men do not like Americans in general and in particular hate American women. Ali (Moaadi) is different. He does speak English, and tries to engage her in conversation – specifically about Harry Potter. Apparently, the library has the first 6 books in the series, but not the seventh – and Ali really, really wants to know how it ends. He is been here for 8 years now – arrested in the months after 9é11, and be detained here ever since. We never find out what he did – but to the movie it doesn’t much matter, and it doesn’t matter to Ali either. After spending this long at Camp X-Ray, no country in the world would want him anyway.
The film is at its best in the first hour – as it establishes the routine of the camp, and how everything works. An understated thread in the movie is how women in the military are treated. Cole tries to remain all business – she never lets her hair done at all, unless she is alone in her room – and mainly keeps her distance from the male recruits, who in various ways let her know they are interested. She is there to do a job – and wants to be treated like everyone else – but knows she isn’t being treated that way.
The relationship between Cole and Ali develops slowly – getting off to a bad start, because both hold certain ideas about the other one, until gradually they get to know, and like each other. It’s here where the movie falls into the narrative traps we expect, and ends up in the least interesting place imaginable for the movie itself. The last half hour is essentially one cliché after another. It doesn’t help that the movie feels a little long as well – it’s nearly two hours, and moves rather slowly at that.
But Stewart and Moaadi are able to mostly rescue the movie from itself. It is the debut film for writer-director Peter Sattler – who at least knows not to try and do too much with one film – a rarity among first time directors. But a little imagination could have led to some more interesting directions for the movie to go. As it stands, it has two great performances in a fairly average film.