Someday when the sins of our modern age are tallied up, the culture will provide ample evidence that the worst infractions committed in our name weren’t done so in secrecy. Given what it depicts, Camp X-Ray should play like an exposé, a public shaming, a tearing down of a veil of secrecy to cast light on the fruitless, heartless policy of ceaseless incarceration of detainees, charged with nothing and held on the grounds of little more than onetime half-formed suspicion, at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. Instead, it’s just another movie, more notable for its plainness than its ability to shock or dismay. It is filled with well-worn details that the filmmakers attempt to shape into something more compelling through the act of drama, concentrating the connection between a young female guard (Kristen Stewart) and a particularly talkative detainee (Payman Maadi) whose cell she is charged with peering into as part of her regular rounds. The film is well-meaning but soft, too bound to structural certainty to be properly challenging.
Writer-director Peter Sattler (making his feature debut in both capacities) pays glancing attention to some of the underlying issues at play, including the noble intentions that lead U.S. citizens to seek out military service only to find themselves stuck maintaining tragicomic policies they can’t bring themselves to believe in. He doesn’t seem to have it in his to fully plumb the troubling possibilities of his story, however. In large part, this is because the film is almost an inarticulate as its protagonist, who is meant to be a young woman adrift, only beginning to come into an understanding of her own morality and how it may not have a place in this military, at this time. Stewart, an actress who’s rarely encountered a part she couldn’t play with dead-eyed hesitancy and preemptive disdain, does fairly well with the role. Admittedly, her usual persona is well-suited to the earliest scenes, but her best moments come when she is struggling to understand why promises of order and honor that were inherent to her service are being broken without a care (a scene with her commanding officer, played by the great character actor John Carroll Lynch is especially good). That requires her to engage with the material to a degree I haven’t seen from her before. If she falters in the heaviest moments in the third act, just as much blame can be affixed to the phoniness of what she’d charged with playing.
Nothing illustrates the sham at the heart of Camp X-Ray quite like the gesture of kindness that helps draw it to a close. There’s not much doubt it’s coming from the very first moment it’s set up, early in the film. The lengthy narrative preamble doesn’t negate the unlikeliness of it. It is a screenplay contrivance detached from honesty to such a degree that it only calls further attention to all the ways the film doesn’t have the toughness to take the stand it wants to, really that it purports to. Camp X-Ray is surely on the right side of history in its condemnation of the blight on our national conscious represented by the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. That’s not quite the same thing as achieving success as a work of art.