Payman Moaadi’s performance in Camp X-Ray shines with enough humanity to illuminate the whole movie. Where writer/director Peter Sattler’s political drama may feel too mechanical, arriving at its issues too precisely, Moaadi’s portrayal of mentally scarred Guantanamo Bay detainee Ali Amir writhes with so much pain, anger, and yearning that it elevates everything around it. This includes his interactions with Kristen Stewart, which are, unexpectedly, truly special for their intensity, giving the film’s events a real degree of urgency.
Sattler’s drama is embroiled in two hot political topics, which in many ways it wants so badly to conflate: the United States’ indefinite holding of prisoners—often for unclear reasons—and the treatment of women in the male-centric U.S. military. Our protagonist and a new guard at Guantanamo, Private Cole (Stewart), learns the hard truths of both situations as soon as she arrives at the detention center; to his credit, Sattler wants to create a strong drama first, and allow politics to naturally emerge from his characters’ predicaments.
The first thing Cole learns is that Guantanamo must be called a “detention center” with detainees, not a “prison” with prisoners—otherwise Guantanamo would violate the Geneva Convention. Rules like this set the stage for the odd bureaucracy that runs through the place, where administration’s concerns aren’t over how people are treated, but how everything complies with regulation. (Complaints won’t reach any ears actually interested in hearing them.) Visually, the locale’s sterile, brightly lit, not that dungeon of squalor befitting a horrific prison. More like a high school. The terror lies in its banality.
The straight-faced Cole attempts to earn respect upon her arrival, but can’t win with a macho superior (Lane Garrison), and soon finds more members of the men’s club up the chain of command. But the key to Cole’s transformation comes when she guards the detainees. Guantanamo looks the same whether she’s working the night shift or the day shift—the lights stay on 24 hours a day—but one prisoner stands out, which he does by demanding the last Harry Potter book (they had all the previous installments but never got the 7th, leaving him wondering what happens and whether Snape is good or bad). Cole soon finds that his qualms aren’t always so cute, however, when he lashes out, assaulting her with the only weapon he has: his own feces.
This prisoner is Amir, and even after suffering his abuse, Cole can’t help but sympathize with her detainee. Both characters are incapable of enacting change in their current situation, so the best they can hope for is friendship. In the midst of that dynamic, Camp X-Ray is at its best. Moaadi, who was also great in the 2011 Oscar winner A Separation, pulls off comedy quite well, as his character has embraced the absurdity of his situation with mad abandon, but deep down he’s struggling with psychological issues developed during incarceration. His everyday conditions, of course, do not allow him to continually perpetuate his zany persona, which adds a volatility to his scenes that leave us wondering just whom the real man is—if he still exists at all.
Stewart plays off Moaadi with a reserved curiosity, her cold exterior occasionally showing signs of fascination and amusement. Stewart’s performances have often met with the criticism that she doesn’t project enough outward emotion, but in this case that’s an advantage. For a member of the armed services—and a female who faces the challenge of being accepted, especially within an organization which champions the importance of protecting one’s own—her reserved expressions are necessity. Yet, given her low rank, Cole doesn’t have much information about this prisoner or why he’s in Guantanamo. All that’s certain is her friendship is forbidden—and her commander makes that clear in rather sadistic ways. In one disturbing scene, he aims to disrupt the guard’s and prisoner’s mutual respect by forcing Cole to humiliate the man, demanding she see him more intimately than his Muslim beliefs allow.
When the story ventures away from Cole and Amir, it loses much of its punch. Unfortunately, outside of the leads’ powerful interactions, the rest of the drama feels rather rote (especially given its “big” political issues), and Sattler’s script lags behind heavy-handed metaphors and over-explanation, which thankfully Moaadi tries his best to save. This is Sattler’s first feature as a writer and director, after all, but, next to his ability to elicit such performances from his cast, his strongest asset is his awareness of place. Regardless of how accurately Camp X-Ray replicates the real Guantanamo, its claustrophobic cleanliness is both surprising and off-putting, and Sattler’s depiction of the environment, while unremarkable, is remarkably clear.
Inevitably, the two characters come to understand and value each other. Camp X-Ray, in turn, is more about friendship than any other newspaper headline, and while it may not be a likely story or even a truly believable story as far as Guantanamo Bay and the military go, Moaadi, with a little help from Kristen Stewart, makes sure it’s a memorable one.
Director: Peter Sattler
Writer: Peter Sattler
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Payman Moaadi, Lane Garrison
Release Date: October 17, 2014