''Camp X-Ray" Reviews
Kristen Stewart’s new Guantanamo Bay drama “Camp X-Ray” premiered to mixed reactions following its Sundance Film Festival debut.
Some audience members at Friday’s screening “loved” the fictional war drama, starring the “Twilight” actress, while other criticized the film for being “too slow.”
The film, playing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the festival, takes place in the infamous U.S. prison camp Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and follows a young military guard (Stewart) who begins to question the facility’s abusive treatment of its detainees after she forms a bond with one of the Islamic prisoners.
Director Peter Settler, during his introduction to the film, said he wanted to focus on humanity, not politics, while making “Camp X-Ray,” which opens with footage from the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York.
“We wanted to make a movie that is not propaganda,” the writer/director told the audience.
Stewart, on hand for a post-screening Q&A, said she spent hours watching GITMO documentaries and was even trained by a “really awesome marine named JB who…whipped me into shape.”
“She had aspects that I am and really felt,” the actress said of her character in the movie. “My prep was figuring out who she was.”
Insiders at the festival suggested to Variety that the film would likely sell to a small distributor for limited theatrical/VOD release.
“Camp X-Ray,” co-starring Payman Moaadi and Lane Garrison, was exec produced by David Gordon Green.
**** **** **** ****
You likely have strong opinion on Kristen Stewart's acting abilities. The Twilight movies turned you way on or way off. Well, throw that perception out the window. In her new movie Camp X-Ray, Stewart plays a Guantanamo Bay guard who befriends an inmate. You read that correctly. While the movie takes a deliberately apolitical stance and clinical approach to depicting the malaise of Gitmo life, Stewart's brand of introverted, lip-biting naturalism adds a necessary warmth to the movie. Like her character, who retreats from life in Florida to whatever the army may provide, Camp X-Ray is Stewart shedding a skin and allowing herself to be tapped for talent. Director Peter Sattler finds a real person in Stewart, enveloping her in a reality that's more nurturing to her personality than Snow White fantasy lands. She wears her camouflage with a stone cold intensity, slowly breaking down when she opens up to a detainee (played by A Separation's Peyman Moaadi). The movie doesn't dig too far under the surface, but Stewart is a watchable pawn in the prison's mechanics. If you've written her off, realize you've under-appreciated her all this time.
**** **** **** ****
Kristen Stewart's involvement will no doubt bring a certain amount of attention to Peter Sattler's debut feature film, "Camp X-Ray," which is probably the best use she could make of the stardom she seemed so uncomfortable with in the wake of the massive success of the "Twilight" series.
That discomfort, evident in pretty much any interview or red carpet she's ever done, is one of the her assets as a performer, and in the right role, it can be a very compelling thing. She stars as Cole, a young soldier stationed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay eight years after the events of 9/11. The movie unfolds in a very deliberate, experiential way. It actually opens with the smoking World Trade Center on TV. We see that we're in a hotel room. There's a man with several cell phones praying to Mecca. In mid-prayer, he is grabbed, a bag pulled over his head, and then we see a series of images of various people being transferred to Guantanamo. Our last glimpse of him is huddled in a cage, face bloodied and bruised, with armed soldiers all around.
Eight years later, once Cole starts her tour at Gitmo, we catch up with Ali (Payman Maadi), who is still being detained. The film paints a portrait of the daily life of both the soldiers who are stationed there and the detainees (it is pointed out early on that they are never to be referred to as "prisoners" because of the Geneva Conventions), and perhaps the strongest thing Sattler does is try to maintain a neutral eye as he looks at the way this situation affects both sides.
When I wrote a review of "Lone Survivor" recently, I got some angry reactions from people upset that I didn't like the movie and that I questioned the value of the mission depicted in the film. One of the oddest cognitive disconnects possible is when someone tells you to shut up and keep your opinion to yourself because soldiers are fighting for your freedom. Never mind the fact that stifling an opinion you don't like runs entirely counter to the notion of freedom. What really seems strange to me about that reaction is the idea that someone genuinely believes that my personal freedom is impacted one way or another by what happened to a handful of SEALs on a mountain in Afghanistan, or the notion that same freedom depends on the actions of soldiers in a military prison in Cuba. Whether Sattler wants his film to be political or not, it is, simply by virtue of the ideas it addresses. While I understand the hole that our government dug for itself with the detainees, I don't understand the utter lack of forward motion regarding what we're supposed to do with these people. At what point do we admit that our security theater has been unsuccessful, and how do we even begin to address the mistakes we've made regarding some of these people?
Slowly, a rapport develops between Cole and Ali, and both Stewart and Maadi do excellent work in the film. Maadi captures the rage and the helplessness and the struggle to maintain some semblance of sanity when locked in an insane situation with no end in sight. Stewart manages to etch a very empathetic portrait of a young woman who isn't completely comfortable with what she's being asked to do, and the obvious ambivalence she has towards her hometown that she escaped and the life she's signed up for make her the perfect guide for us through what is a very complicated moral landscape. Sattler wisely never tries to portray Ali as a complete innocent. The opening scenes with him are just quick enough, full of small details that are hard to sort out, that it's hard not to think that he was involved in something. But what? And when there's no trial and no push to learn anything from the people being detained, what's the point? For a country that spends so much time talking about the importance of freedom, we seem perfectly content to deny that to people over vague possible wrongdoing, and happy to have those people out of sight where we don't have to think about it.
On the bus after the film, one guy was loudly complaining that the film only bothered to humanize one of the detainees, but I think that's actually sort of canny on Sattler's part. The more of the detainees he introduces and the more he tries to paint full pictures of each of them, the less time he has to do so. Instead, by focusing on Cole and Ali, he's doing his best to let them stand as representatives for both sides, and in their human interaction, we can see the entire dynamic of Guantanamo Bay writ large. There's a moment early on where Cole and Ali talk about the books on the small library cart that she's tasked with rolling around for the prisoners, and while it's both absurdly funny and completely mundane, it says a lot about both of them. Cole resists listening to anything Ali is saying beyond a surface level, because it is easier to treat him as a faceless number than it is to acknowledge that he is a human being locked in confinement for eight years without any sort of due process, and Ali is so focused on his own outrage that he doesn't see how dangerous it is for any guard to deal with him on a personal level.
Little by little, though, there are shifts in perception and moments of understanding and by the end of the film, there is something real that happens between them. There's no giant dramatic impossible conclusion built into the film by Sattler. He knows that this situation will keep rolling on for the foreseeable future, and that no one soldier and no one detainee will change that. But his film dares to suggest that the only true chance there is for any solution exists when we see each other as something more than labels and surfaces, an idea that evidently still terrifies many people on both sides of the equation.
Technical support is strong for Sattler on the film, and special note must be made of the work by Richard Wright, the film's production designer. He's done a great job of creating a Guantanamo Bay that feels real and functional instead of a movie set. The film is carefully shot, with a fine eye for detail, by James Laxton, and Jess Stroup's score offers fine emotional shading without hammering anything. The rest of the cast is also very good, with Lane Garrison in fine form as Corporal Ransdell, the Texas-bred roughneck who Cole answers to directly. I really like the way his character's written so he never tips into easy caricature, and John Carroll Lynch is equally good as Col. Drummond, the C.O. of the base. The film paints a frustrating picture of what it must be like to serve in the modern military in a bureaucratic position, but instead of casting the military as villains or heroes, it simply tries to capture the contradictions that drive most of their daily behaviors. There is a very deliberate pace to the film that may be intentional, but it still feels like it takes a while for the story to find its focus, which could be an issue for many viewers.
"Camp X-Ray" is going to be a hard commercial sell, but the film has a delicate human heart, and it is ultimately rewarding. I think it's a strong indication of what Stewart can do with the right material, and it makes a case for Maadi as one of the most interesting character actors working right now. Solid, small, and sincere, "Camp X-Ray" offers an important perspective to a difficult conversation.
"Camp X-Ray" plays twice tomorrow, once on Monday, then two more times during the festival, and I suspect those of you not at Sundance will get your own chance to see it very soon.
**** **** **** ****
To say Kristen Stewart is a reluctant celebrity would be a laughable understatement. Now shed of the Twilight movies and their accompanying publicity campaigns, she seems determined to become the actress she would have been if Bella (and Robert Pattinson) hadn’t come into her life. And in Peter Sattler’s new film Camp X-Ray, which had its high-profile (thanks to its star) premiere at Sundance on Friday, Stewart plays, of all things, a guard at Guantanamo Bay. And she is very good in it.
Stewart’s character, Cole, is a cypher at first: For most of the movie, we don’t know her first name, or anything about her. She comes to Guantanamo clearly determined to overcome any fear she has about being there, and to escape her life. She’s angry, stone-faced, energized by the prisoners’ agitations, and wanting to belong among her fellow military comrades. Lane Garrison, who is starting to make a career comeback after his imprisonment for vehicular homicide several years ago, plays Cole’s boss, a leeringly fratty corporal who hates the prisoners (or detainees, as they’re called to avoid abiding by the Geneva Conventions). There is one other female character in the movie, who’s more of a party girl, and we never hear her speak; the two women seem to think they have no reason to talk to each other.
The story’s thrust comes from Cole’s back-and-forths with Detainee 471 — played by Payman Maadi, who is both sinister and beguiling — who tells her his name is Ali. He is handsome, smart, and a good conversationalist; but he also throws shit at Cole. I suspect you will be hearing about Maadi and this role. Let’s hope the film industry can make way for him, and that he doesn’t always have to play a terrorist.
Or a possible terrorist. As we know from the real world, it’s unclear what the current incarcerations at Guantanamo have gotten us — and we also know that President Obama broke his promise to close the prison because no one can figure out what to do with the men inside. That thread of frustration and hopelessness runs through Camp X-Ray, which takes place nine years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
There’s a Harry Potter metaphor that runs through the film — about Snape — that symbolizes the Sundance movie’s powerful emotional impact and its symmetrically constructed narrative. But it’s also indicative of Camp X-Ray’s tendency to overreach sometimes. Ali begins his interactions with Cole by demanding the seventh and last book in the Harry Potter series; he says he knows it exists, never gets to read it, and needs to know whether Snape is a good guy or a bad guy. It’s the kind of framing that’s designed to pay off in a play-like screenplay like Sattler’s. And it does.
As Camp X-Ray’s story unfolds, and Cole begins to identify with and like Ali, the movie relies on what’s become Stewart’s signature awkwardness. And by the film’s end, Cole has transformed. If that’s Stewart’s goal as well, Camp X-Ray is an excellent start.
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