Camp X-Ray isn’t as good as it seems. If you ignore the filmmaking and acting and instead focus on the screenplay, it’s absolutely abysmal. The characters are little more than mouthpieces for writer/director Peter Sattler’s political philosophy, and nothing about it is subtle.
“Americans are the real terrorists!” says a Guantanamo detainee. “These guys just don’t like girls. It’s an Arab thing,” says a military officer who – and I know this is going to sound shocking – turns out not to be a feminist icon. It’s a didactic plea to end bigotry with all the nuance of a G.I. Joe PSA, and it’s not helped by Peter Sattler’s drab direction.
Even if the characters exist purely to deliver political rhetoric, the actors make them feel like real people. Peyman Moaadi does great work as detainee Ali, connecting the artificial elements of his character to honest emotions. On the page, a line like “Americans are the real terrorists” seems too on-the-nose. Yet Moaadi’s performance is so nuanced that the line – while shallow enough to stand out – doesn’t feel unnatural.
Moaadi also translates normal human responses to fit the context of an extreme prison environment. His desire to read the final Harry Potter book isn’t so much a want than a need, and he conveys it with twitchy, nervous urgency. Moaadi goes a long way toward elevating the film’s screenplay.
Kristen Stewart is also good, but I’d like to go on record as saying that she was never that bad to begin with. Her status as an internet meme stems primarily from a misunderstanding of what “good” acting looks like. She’s often ridiculed for being unable to show facial expressions as if that’s an inherent factor to successful performances. The problem with that critique is that acting is not a one-size-fits-all discipline; different directors will require different things out of their actors.
Stewart puts that “blank” expression to good use in Camp X-Ray. She plays a new Guantanamo guard named Case. As written, the character struggles to hide her emotions. Even Stewart skeptics have to admit that she’s well-cast here. She underplays everything in the movie which helps allay the script’s bluntness.
Half of Camp X-Ray is about America’s hypocritical treatment of Muslims post-9/11, while the other half is about women in the military. The former is, as discussed, treated without subtlety. The latter half is better executed and more compelling. The entire film should have been devoted to exploring those secondary ideas.
Case’s reluctance to show emotion comes from being a woman in a male-dominated environment. At one point, a commanding officer asks her, “Are you a soldier, or are you a female soldier?” It’s the best line in the film (though that’s not saying much) because it so perfectly frames all of Case’s interactions with her fellow Army members.
To the men she works with, ignoring her gender is the same thing as treating her equally. The problem is that they all subconsciously think of “male” as “neutral.” This leads them to believe any other genders are deviations from the “norm” – a sneaky side effect of social privilege.
This broken logic means Case’s peers mentally separate “soldier” from “female soldier.” She is expected to relinquish or hide her gender in ways that her male counterparts never are. And, mist importantly, she has to bury her emotions for fear of gender-based discrimination.
Perhaps if Sattler had drawn a clearer line between the hypocritical ways the world treats Ali and Case, their friendship could have sprung from a mutual hatred for bigotry. Instead, he presents an arbitrary relationship between the leads that doesn’t feel organic. This underdevelopment ultimately damages their individual storylines.
Camp X-Ray could have dealt with sexism in a positive way, but unfortunately forces those moments to share space with sledgehammer politics about imperialism and Islamaphobia. Neither theme is more deserving of exploration, but when one is handled much better than the other, the film comes across as uneven.
It would be bad enough if Camp X-Ray failed on every level, but a percentage of it succeeds. There are pieces of a film buried among its hackneyed messages and ideas. Sattler just never put them together.
Movie Verdict: Meh