Endless repetition marks Camp X-Ray, the directorial debut of Peter Sattler. Guards pace in never-ending circles around narrow corridors that resemble a clinical laboratory complex, yet contain only the remnants of a distant war on terror that’s moved far beyond the stage where capturing suspected extremists has much point anymore. If the interminable circuits are hard on the guards, forced to check methodically on each detainee (not prisoner – that would mean they have some rights), they’re a mental death sentence for those locked up for close to a decade. Some might be guilty, others are almost certainly innocent. Either way, this thoughtful Guantanamo Bay drama sees them wrapped up in a haze of impotent rage going nowhere other than gradually insane.
Taking Guantanamo Bay on headfirst is a risky manoeuvre. How do you walk the line between gung-ho patriotism and blind liberal hand-wringing? Sattler, working from his own screenplay achieves the right balance by focussing on rookie guard Amy Cole, played with impressive passivity by Kristen Stewart. She’s new to the military and finds herself thrust into a world where her colleagues show a startling lack of empathy with their charges. One even goes as far as to claim that the detainees get all the breaks because their food is better. As their behaviour becomes more unbearable, Cole and the film pull away building a relationship with Peyman Moaadi’s half broken detainee Ali Amir instead.
It’s here that Camp X-Ray really takes off. The early sequences are watchable but little more. The macho military world where men make disparaging wisecracks about the enemy and leer over women has been done, and done better. Cole’s efforts to establish herself also fail to convince. She’s a little too good at everything. Give her a fishing rod and she’ll bait the hook, hand her a beer and she’ll best all-comers in drinking games. She’s first to volunteer to subdue unruly detainees and not averse to delivering a kick to the ribs when challenged.
Amir offers the chance to break free from the archetype from which she’s formed. Their friendship develops with a soft authenticity, barriers breaking in increments. There are no sudden Eureka moments, only a creeping realisation that the person she peers at through the hatch might in fact be a man and not a monster. That this is achieved after a start that begins with an oblique conversation about Harry Potter played for laughs and a later argument that sees Cole the victim of a shit cocktail (it’s pretty much what it sounds like) is all to Sattler’s credit. When they are stood in the yard, Amir trying to impress her with his keepie uppies, they could be just another couple in the park if it wasn’t for the wire mesh and Lane Garrison’s cruel Corporal standing nearby.
Stewart is on fine form throughout, showing an understated ability that’s been lacking from much of her most popular work. She carries a washed out hue that draws Amir to her in the first place. Peyman Moaadi is the real star though. He cycles Amir through belligerent aggression, cloying friendship and searing honesty with an ease beyond most actors. Together they form the central glue that sticks Camp X-Ray together.
Sattler may betray his lack of experience in other areas – he holds several scenes beyond breaking point until they become simply dull while the ending clumsily lurches for cheap hair tingling closure, but he gets the central relationship right. It’s this that allows Camp X-Ray to address a politically controversial subject with warm intelligence. Cole and Amir are meant to be at war but remove the wall between and suddenly they’re not so different. It’s an old message but no less true for that.