Opens Fri., Nov. 14 at Sundance Cinemas. Rated R. 117 minutes.
Again, Kristen Stewart is in an impossible relationship. Instead of being in love with a vampire, her U.S. Army Private Cole has been deployed to Guantanamo Bay in 2010, where one particular detainee is determined to gain her affections. Cole, we’ll later learn, is a small-town girl from Florida. A few Skype chats with her mother indicate how she’s both running away from and seeking to expand her narrow horizons. She’s not a reader, not long out of high school, and when detainee No. 471 asks her for a library copy of The Prisoner of Azkaban, she says they don’t have those Arab books. Ali (the fine Iranian-American actor Payman Maadi, of A Separation) laughs in her face. Fluent in English, speaking through armored glass, he’ll do other things to insult Cole. But after eight years in Gitmo, he mainly wants a friend—and Cole is the only sympathetic ear he’s got.
Ali was living in Germany after 9/11, and Camp X-Ray leaves his political leanings vague. Whatever his jihadist sympathies, the film’s opening minutes show, he’s swiftly nabbed and subjected to extraordinary rendition—orange jumpsuit, bag over his head, then a chain-link home on a Caribbean island where he may be gradually going mad.
Cole’s military comrades are a mostly rowdy, boorish sort. She’s called a “freshman,” and their off-duty recreation scenes are like spring break in Cuba. It’s no wonder that the reserved Cole, her hair so tightly coiled in a bun, is slowly drawn to an educated adult like Ali. He appeals to her conscience, while her colleagues pretend they have none. Of the detainees’ force feedings and sleep deprivation, says Cole, “It’s not as black and white as they said it’d be. It makes you feel guilty.” Stewart makes Cole’s discomfort evident, though her character remains something of a cipher. She’s shrewd enough to know why prisoners are called detainees (to circumvent the Geneva Convention, she explains to a fellow guard), yet she shows no Snowden-esque willingness to question the broader system. Frustratingly, the script doesn’t give either Cole or Ali much depth beyond their conversational stalemate; still, that may be fittingly symbolic for the purgatory of Gitmo.
Though hardly trenchant, and perhaps better suited to the stage, Peter Sattler’s debut film nonetheless raises an important topic that everyone in Washington, D.C., seems eager to ignore. The lame-duck Obama won’t be able to close Guantanamo Bay, as he promised six years ago, and the next administration won’t likely have more success (particularly with a GOP-run Congress). Camp X-Ray avoids the big picture, yet we suspect that detainees like Ali—and those those much worse than he—will probably grow old and die in Cuba, guarded by two more generations of young soldiers like Cole.