Review: Camp X-Ray (Peter Sattler, 2014, US)

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by Peter DeGraft-Johnson

Way back in the distant past of the political realm, Barack Obama rode into presidential office on a change-shaped chariot winged with hopeful campaign pledges, a yes-we-can attitude and a promise to close the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention centre. A rash of unsightly revelations about the conditions and torture methods used at Guantanamo had already brought it to the attention of the world, but the centre is still open and popping up in the news with fresh stories of human rights abuses and unverifiable intelligence. You won’t get any of that important political background in Camp X-Ray though. Director and scriptwriter Peter Sattler keeps it strictly business, above board, plain and simple – a story about two people each stuck in mental dilemmas caused by systems beyond their control.

Stewart and Maadi’s on-screen chemistry is just strong enough to distract attention away from the political oversights. It doesn’t matter that we’re never told why Amir is suffering through daily debasement in Guantanamo Bay, because the conversations and interactions shine light on mutual understanding and the shared struggles of the human experience. All the more impressive is that Maadi’s performance is mostly delivered through the small window of his cell, subconsciously reminding you that although Amir is reaching out to Cole and commanding the conversation subtly, he is confined in a bare and claustrophobic hell in a cell. Cole’s constrictions populate the other half of the story with a struggle for an identity separate from her fellow soldiers, who are mostly people like Ransdell, her leery and suitably sexist superior officer who is played like a comic-book villain’s sneering grin by Lane Garrison.

Leaving aside the imbalances in the portrayals of Pvt. Cole and Ali’s respective experiences, the marketing of the film has played a huge part in its disappointment. It does what it needs to in the world of two-handed unlikely friendships, but despite the empathy of the characters, the story can’t shake the stench of the sham from it. The other inmates are limited to shouting vague obscenities from their cages while Cole’s fellow guards are similarly flat in their blanket hatred of the prisoners (or “detainees”). The tactlessness deepens further whenever the film increases the tension.

Camp X-Ray shies away from proper representation of the horrific nature of a place like Guantanamo Bay and Peter Sattler is only interested in the relationship between an unlikely pairing with slightly comparable struggles. There’s even space for light comedy, weighed down by tinges of gallows humour in every guilty laugh.

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