Review: CAMP X-RAY, Kristen Stewart Provides The Right Mix

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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Review: CAMP X-RAY, Kristen Stewart Provides The Right Mix

I was busy processing the ending of Camp X-Ray, a film about a soldier relating to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, when I saw the credit "Executive Produced by David Gordon Green."

It's hard to say just what effect this great filmmaker had on Peter Sattler's film, but it did lead me to think a little harder about it than I might have otherwise. And I've concluded it just might be a very good film, almost a great one, if you buy one thing: its protagonist is an idiot.

Now, this will be a bit spoilery, but you'll forgive me, as the ending of the film may either ruin it or make it something kind of great. Before we get to that, let me state unequivocally that Kristen Stewart is perfectly cast in this film. She's always had some hard features, and her role as a small-town Army girl thrust into the moral quagmire of Gitmo is played to near perfection.

Stewart provides just the right mix of toughness and fragility, and she's entirely believable in her role. She spends the best part of the film in a kind of battle of wits with the imprisoned Ali Amir, played with scene-stealing brashness by Peyman Moaadi (A Separation).

Throughout the film, we see the kind of transformation we expect, the humanizing factor that occurs when the prisoner begins to feel that most critical of emotions, empathy, towards their captor. There are moments of humour mixed with despair, sometimes over something as simple as the latest volume of a Harry Potter novel.

It's in these deft little moments that Sattler's script leads the audience, too, to share empathy with all involved - the supreme boredom and repetition shared by both jailer and jailed. This is an ecosystem, a sort of penal coral reef where each organism plays its role.

[Beware -- Spoilers for the ending of the movie ahead.]

Which leads us to the most morally unsettling part of the film, its conclusion (and, again, this spoils the ending). If we're to read it on face value, Amy gives Ali the book with the inscription, finally seeing him not as a war criminal but as "a good guy". She's gone from small-town, small minded Floridian to one who can see the unfairness and cruelty of the imprisonment, and no doubt believes unequivocally that the imprisonment of Ali is both unfair and unjust.

Except, of course, both she, and we, don't know that. The most effective part of the film is when Ali is playing what Amy calls "that Hannibal Lecter" shit. We don't know what Ali has done, we only know that he has fought back against his imprisonment in a way that we all can find something heroic in that behavior, regardless of his circumstance. Yet is he a murderer? Are we to believe his claims that his interrogators find him to have done nothing wrong, that he is the lion that can no longer be led back to the wild?

We don't know, and in many ways the film is best when these answers are left unanswered, when the morality of the situation is shown to be entirely grey. Yet for Amy, she's made up her mind, and I feel that kind of catharsis will equally sway most audiences.

Except, of course, she could be seen as completely wrong. For Ali, as are we all are, are free from neither good nor evil deed. The simplistic binary that Amy is working on is simply a knee-jerk flip-flop from her previous point of view. She's gone in as a small town, small minded soldier and in some ways has left the same, having been gamed by an intellect clearly superior to her own.

It's an odd thing to have a protagonist outwitted in such a way - Clarice after all stood always one step ahead of Hannibal - but it's perhaps to this film's great credit that this film may provide a moment of catharsis that itself is even more unsettling. And just as when I thought I might be reading too much into this film, maybe giving it too much credit, I saw David Gordon Green's name up there. And then I thought, perhaps, I might not be reading enough into the film.

As an exercise in drama with some powerful performances, Camp X-Ray is a remarkable film. As a straight ahead feel-good outcome, it's problematic on face value, yet extremely deep if my reading is correct. I can't claim to know what the filmmakers had in mind, but I choose to believe that the fatuous line written in the book is so over the top, so telegraphed by earlier events that it's meant to clue in audiences that, hey, this girl's still not getting it.

As a work of moral ambivalence, it's extremely interesting. As a jingoistic apology for imprisonment, it's flawed. I choose to believe based on the pedigree of those involved that my former reading is both the more interesting and the more accurate analysis of the film.

[End spoilers.]

I'll leave it to you to see if you agree with my assessment.

Review originally published during the Sundance Film Festival. The films opens in select theaters on Friday, October 17. Visit the official site for more information.

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Guantanamo BayKristen StewartPayman MaadiPeter SattlerNawal BengholamPeyman MoaadiLane GarrisonJoseph Julian SoriaDramaWar

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William JohnsonOctober 16, 2014 2:56 PM

It will be viewed as yet another "left wing Hollywood propaganda" film and tank at the box office regardless of the intent of the director or actors. Stewart's recent comments about the why her character joined the military will only reinforce this perception.

cocoapurlOctober 19, 2014 11:28 AM

This is an independent movie, made for a million dollars. It will not "tank" at the box office. It probably has already made its money back, since it's been travelling the festival circuit since January. It wasn't ever meant to be a blockbuster and it's a miracle that it was even made. Kudos to everyone involved for making a film about a difficult and morally complicated subject.
That being said, I resent, as an American and the daughter of an Army Reserve Captain and the niece of a retired Major General in the Air Force, the fact that Kristen Stewart is being shunned for her opinion about her character. She has every right to be critical, not just of her character, but of the American government and the military. It's simply un-American to suggest otherwise. In fact, I would say it's her duty as a citizen to always question and criticize the government that is supposed to represent her in the world.
I've read this review before and I'll ask the same question now as I asked before, "So what if the protagonist is an idiot?" Does it decrease the value of the story being told if she is being duped by the detainee? Even if he was involved in some scheme to murder Americans, does that make him an evil person, or a person who did an evil thing? The fact that we don't know if "Detainee 471" is guilty should make us feel guilty as Americans. We preach speedy trial, due process and innocence until guilt is proven and then we categorically deny these human beings those basic rights. It shows a lack of integrity as a nation and causes international resentment.

Todd BrownOctober 20, 2014 11:12 AM

You actually don't typically make any money by being on the festival circuit - some sales companies will charge screening fees but that's typically a thousand bucks here and there, a good piece of which goes to the sales company for administering the fest run so it's not really a significant piece of business when it comes to recouping - and there are very few international sales listed for the film so far (IMDBPro has US, Canada, Sweden and the UAE down as having distribution in place so far, though they're not always up to date), but with a million dollar budget it should be fine from VOD numbers, yes.

Other than that, though, well said.

Any MouseDecember 10, 2015 11:08 AM

This author is an idiot