On January 21st, 2009, President Obama signed an executive order declaring that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp would be closed within a year. More than six years later, Guantanamo is still open. There are reasonable people who will offer reasonable explanations for this. Politics got in the way, certain nuances weren't initially considered, there are security matters that need to be taken into account – in short, things are complicated. None of that changes the fact that what we are doing there is wrong. The camp operates outside the boundaries of Geneva convention, giving us the ability to refuse prisoners – sorry, “detainees” - the basic human dignity they're supposed to receive. It enables the American government to hold people for years without ever giving those people access to a fair trial. It has been a haven for torture and abuse. We know these things, but there it sits – a monument to the fear and cowardice of our nation.
I say these things to note that I am in solidarity with the points being made by Peter Sattler's Camp X-Ray, a film which takes a detailed look at life on both sides of the bars in Guantanamo Bay. However, I have agreed with the points made by anti-war/anti-torture films of the past decade, and have found many of those films to be tedious cinematic experiences. What sets Camp X-Ray apart is the fact that it's ultimately the story of two human beings, not the story of a Very Important Issue. It's a movie that understands what serious action on this issue requires: forcing the American public to remember that the detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay are real human beings.
PFC Amy Cole (Kristin Stewart, Twilight) isn't particularly enthusiastic about being given an assignment in Guantanamo Bay. She'd much rather be in Iraq, fighting terrorists and bringing democracy to a foreign country. Instead, she's stuck on endless guard duty. Her commanding officer (Lane Garrison, Shooter) clearly outlines the specifics of the job Cole and her fellow soldiers have been given: “You're not here to keep these men from escaping. The walls do that. You're here to keep them alive.”
The majority of the inmates treat Cole derisively – because they are prisoners, because they dislike women and because they have contempt for America. If they ever get the opportunity, they will spit on her or fling feces on her. Despite heavy security measures, such incidents are occasional inevitabilities. However, one detainee attempts to form a friendly relationship with her. His name is Ali (Peyman Moaadi, A Separation), a book-loving, English-speaking German Muslim. We don't know why he was captured or whether he is innocent, but he seems desperate to have someone to talk to – about books (the Harry Potter series in particular), about America, about anything.
The bulk of Camp X-Ray feels like a two-person stage play, offering lengthy, thoughtfully written dialogue scenes between Cole and Ali. Stewart and Moaadi do excellent work; the former's terse reticence blending nicely with the latter's eager chattiness. Cole doesn't want to become friends with the prisoners – she wants to do her job and leave feelings out of it – but after a while, she can't help but develop a certain measure of empathy for Ali, which in turn leads her to feelings of discomfort over the things she's asked to do to him. She confesses her guilt to a fellow soldier, who reacts with disgust: “Guilt? Are you kidding me? These people did 9/11!” The other soldiers rarely pause to consider that some of these men may not have done anything at all.
Stewart has the film's most challenging role, as she's the one tasked with depicting a gradual, subtle internal change. She handles the part remarkably well, and proves convincing every step of the way. In addition to capturing Cole's evolving feelings on Guantanamo, Stewart does an excellent job of giving us a sense of what it's like to be a woman in the military. Sattler creates a quietly hostile environment that becomes increasingly difficult for Cole to ignore. She can shrug off the ribald jokes (and tell them, for that matter), casually dismiss the aggressive flirtation and endure the rampant sexism, but these things wear down on her over time, and the threat of something more serious is always in the air (observe a party scene in which a casual sexual encounter takes an ugly turn). Her work environment unintentionally contributes to her ability to connect with Ali: he's one of the few people who treats her with respect (one appalling mid-film incident aside).
Some may feel the film's closing scenes are too direct or heavy-handed, and they may have a point. There's something slightly too simplistic about the way the film ends, and too many peripheral moments along the way that feel like watered-down versions of good arguments. The movie could use a little more complexity at times. Still, the power of Camp X-Ray's larger point is considerable: whatever we may think of each other, whatever sins we may have committed, whatever our disagreements, we cannot accomplish anything until we learn to empathize. Many political films angrily attempt to shake us out of our complacency, and this one does, too – but it also makes a genuine effort to reach our heart, and that's where real change happens.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 2014