Searching for Humanity around the Inhumane
“They will test you and they will best you,” says an army corporal near the beginning of Camp X-Ray. He’s talking to a newly arrived batch of guards about Guantanamo Bay detainees. “This is a war zone.” His words are never fully realized and so they come across as exaggerated. In his mind, they’re preventative. It’s an otherwise loud initiation for a subdued and delicate movie, which re-examines the moral ambiguities surrounding foreign prisoners and the continued ripples from September 11, 2001.
Camp X-Ray doesn’t have anything new or particularly topical to add to these well-documented blurry lines. Its insularity prevents even a thought about the prison’s potential closing. But following Kristen Stewart around the flavorless facilities gives this movie a compass and a perspective that suggests it has more to do than just shrug its shoulders. As private Amy Cole, who had no plans to start duty in Cuba, Stewart is one of the few female soldiers trained to make rounds in cellblocks. Her hair is tightly wrapped into a bun. She tries her best to shed her sexuality, if not to be respected by the detainees, then to at least warrant it from her own camouflage fraternity.
In this way, writer Peter Sattler, also making his directorial debut, seems more interested in how a woman in uniform affects (or is affected by) these men, both those behind bars and those with the keys. It begins poorly. Stewart immediately is thrown into action, wrestling down a detainee with three other guards before receiving a cut lip from an errant punch. On the bus back to camp, someone says it looks like she has herpes. “I’d hit it anyway,” says her corporal. “Well then I really would get herpes,” she responds. It’s a stone-faced, satisfying joke, but one now wary of the sexual appetites on board.
This will spiral into a more passionate, if not sloppily misguided attempt later on. She has nobody to talk to about this and the movie, as Stewart emotionally verifies, suggests that Cole is really navigating two islands. Her consolation eventually comes through another prisoner, Ali (an effective Payman Maadi), who tries beginning a dialogue with her from his small-windowed cell as she circles her narrow hallway 12 hours a day. Her job, besides rolling around library carts, is to prevent detainees from killing themselves. She is to be distant and unapproachable. Ali makes that difficult, primarily because he is the only one able to speak English.
His first inquiry regards finding the seventh Harry Potter book because he’s not sure if one of its characters, Severus Snape, is either good or bad. He’s not sure what Cole is either. She tells him to cut the Hanibal Lecter act, but both of them have a humanity they keep tightly held. Soon, demands and replies become quiet conversations. They talk about religion and you’re not sure if Ali’s discussions are a form of mind control or critical curiosity. Sattler leaves their interactions open-ended. Would he talk to a male soldier this way? Would a male soldier ever respond?
Maybe economic implications determined why there are no broad views of the Gitmo detention center. Or maybe Sattler is just interpreting the claustrophobic realism of the place. He’s content to give you a limited, mundane picture if only to emphasize its limited, mundane world. Stewart wheels her book cart through three sets of security locked doors, and the camera watches intently as she buzzes, waits, and then opens each latch. The detainees, from their bagged capture to solitary confinement, are caged animals but Stewart isn’t far from one, pacing and pausing for hours in between role call underneath a waving American flag. Sattler is close to evoking Steve McQueen’s Hunger, both aesthetically and tonally, and the detainees do try to starve themselves. Some other soldiers occasionally show resistance to torture methods but they quickly dismiss their anxieties. Cole is the only one whose questions linger.
“There is no ‘Why’ in the army,” says a guard to her. It’s a heavy-handed statement and Cole admits her naiveté in this landscape, wondering how things have strayed from black and white. Her Colonel (John Carroll Lynch) projects some well-spoken rhetoric to her about becoming friends with Ali to erase any more gray area. Naturally, it provokes more.
Before Cole returns home after serving a year, Ali questions her one final time, creating a tidy final ending. “What have you learned?” he asks her. Stewart, who has pulled off a spectrum of stoicism, begins to break down without an answer. The tragedy is that you don’t know whether she has nothing to say, or if she just has no way to express it.