Private First Class Officer Cole (Kristen Stewart) remarks about halfway through Camp X-Ray that it’s “not as black and white as people said it would be.” She’s speaking of Guantánamo Bay, where she’s been stationed for more than eight months guarding detainees. The film, from first-time director Peter Sattler, tries its best to subtly explore the budding friendship between Cole and a Gitmo prisoner. While the film comes close to hitting some big issues, it never quite lands a punch.
It takes place in the years after 9/11. Cole is assigned to Camp Delta, a detention camp that holds alleged terrorists, and the officers are directed not to call the inmates “prisoners;” otherwise, with that designation, they would fall under the protection of the Geneva Convention. Cole is violently introduced into the world of Gitmo when she volunteers to transfer a detainee on her first day. She gets kicked in the mouth pretty badly, but her resolve hardens.
It is shaken, though, when she encounters detainee no. 471, Ali (Payman Maadi). While she wheels around a cart of books for the detainees, he catches her interest when he passionately requests the final Harry Potter book. After a very rocky start in which he throws his feces at her from within his cell (known in camp lingo as a “shit cocktail”), Cole gradually lets her guard down. She teases Ali while he tries to impress her with his soccer skills in the yard, and she’s captivated by his intricate drawings.
Others take notice, especially Ransdell (Lane Garrison), a superior officer. He felt jilted by Cole, who rejected his aggressive romantic advances when she first arrived at the camp. He retaliates by putting her and Ali into uncomfortable positions, like guarding the detainee while he showers.
It’s a small story with big themes surrounding it. Yet the film dances around the idea that the officers are also prisoners of a kind, trapped in a structured world where even the slightest wrong move gets them into trouble. More disappointingly, Cole, as a female officer in a strongly male environment, brings up a myriad of issues that the film only touches upon. Her relationship with Ali clearly hinges on her feeling isolated from other officers, and it would have been provocative to explore further her position in the camp as well as how that’s affected by her gender.
It also slowly builds, especially since Cole is so detached. It’s tough even to pinpoint why Ali warms to her, though Camp X-Ray may also be playing with idea that she has been ordered to withhold all personal information from the detainees. Still, it’s a close-to-the-vest character that we’re used to seeing from Kristen Stewart, though she does a fine job bringing home the emotional ending. She is, unfortunately, completely outshone by Payman Maadi, best known for A Separation (where he was billed as Peyman Moadi). Maadi is great throughout, with an understated but touching performance that really pays off at the end.