Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray abounds in the heavy-handed symbolism we’ve come to expect from 13 years of War on Terror movies, built on a kinship between two leads that harkens back to Stanley Kramer’s hoary issue dramas of the 1950s. Kristen Stewart stars as Amy Cole, a doe-eyed private deployed to Guantanamo Bay for 12-hour-long suicide-watch shifts, and Payman Maadi is Ali, a detainee arrested in the film’s opening minutes with no cause or charges given. The world’s least-experienced filmgoer will probably be able to tell from their meet-cute that a Very Important Lesson is due, but for a spell the question of a happy ending is an open one thanks to the film’s feeling of despair, imparted largely by James Laxton’s smartly anemic location cinematography.
It’s only once military salutes to the American flag are intercut with images of detainees praying toward Mecca, and characters have begun addressing the question of who the real terrorists are, that Camp X-Ray segues from being an utterly average potboiler to a flummoxing would-be polemic. The film seems to fancy itself a step-by-step procedural, yet Sattler’s script confirms nothing for the audience that they couldn’t discern from the get-go: Detainees are abused and neglected, to the point that the wardens themselves appear prisoners of a rigidly unfair paradigm. Maadi gives a fair toss to the thankless task of representing the post-9/11 “other,” but he conspicuously stands out from the pack due to his articulateness and creativity. Stewart’s turn as Amy mostly consists of pouting and biting her lower lip, looking alternately bored, or like she might burst into tears at any minute. The pair are outright ciphers, explicating the East-meets-West obviousness of the screenplay every time they speak.
Within Amy’s narrative, at least one subplot comes close to sticking: She makes out with, then refuses, her overeager commanding officer (Lane Garrison), who proceeds to coldly ostracize her within the chain of command, rendering her complaints about Ali’s mistreatment dead on arrival. The overseeing colonel, played by John Carroll Lynch, can’t let a conversation go by without pronouncing his distaste for the camp, comparing it unfavorably to his grandfather’s heroic bombing missions in WWII. His letdown is consistent with Amy’s, and their deflated sense of American pride curiously emerges as Camp X-Ray’s abiding dilemma—not Ali’s mistreatment, or the false grounds on which he was abducted. Both sobering and pandering (at one point Amy complains, “It’s not as black and white as they said it was gonna be!”), Sattler’s film feels quintessentially Sundance: an expensively mounted treatise on important issues that’s terrified to dig in obsessively, yet so ramrod-stiff with indignation that it never comes anywhere near compelling entertainment.