Camp X-Ray opens on a Muslim man performing his morning prayers, only to be abducted with a horror movie’s sudden swiftness by American soldiers. His head clad in a black bag, he’s conveyed to Guantanamo Bay, where he stares at the opaque outline of a soldier standing in front of a beam of light. Cut to title card, which serves as an assurance that, metaphorically speaking, the movie will get inside both soldier and detainee rather than staying on the impenetrable outside.
Private Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) is a new arrival to Guantanamo. Introducing her and others to the base, Corporal Ransdell (Lane Garrison) outlines procedure and warns, most importantly, “Do not let them get inside your head.” There are shades of Silence Of The Lambs here; indeed, when detainee Amir Ali (Peyman Moaadi) starts talking at her, Amy’s bristling response is to tell him not to “Hannibal Lecter” her. But Amir is no locked-up criminal mastermind: He’s innocent (of what charges, we never learn), and his English is more than good enough to trigger Amy’s empathy. Both guard and detainee are prisoners without agency; the drama consists of their anguish over that knowledge.
There’s something insulting about this thoroughly well-intentioned film, which insists not that the entire operation is wrong, but merely that this particular nice guy has been wronged. In his opening verbal sallies, Amir whines that he’s been asking for years for the seventh Harry Potter book to be added to the library. Detainees—they’re just like us! But what if they weren’t? Camp X-Ray inadvertently insists that criticism of the whole enterprise is impossible without someone “relatable” to be aggrieved on behalf of. It’s hard to imagine this film functioning if Ali didn’t speak English or were overtly loathsome or threatening, or if Amy was an abusive custodian. Personalizing the material on the basis of sympathy feels like an evasion of political thought.
In the interest of giving credit where due: Writer-director Peter Sattler’s script expands its scope to include a not-so-subtle critique of institutional sexism in the military, where fewer than one in 10 reported sexual assaults make it to trial. Perpetually catcalled, Amy struggles to assert herself, and when it’s her word against Ransdell’s over an incident designed to humiliate Ali, it’s no surprise whose side the top brass takes. Here, too, the dramatic construction is troubling: Amy is more inclined to respond to Ali’s conversational overtures simply because he’s one of the only men around to respect her. Both come from backgrounds dominated by men who don’t respect women, a form of parallelism that is broadly understandable but reductive.
Late in the game, an increasingly frustrated Amy opines that the situation at Guantanamo isn’t “as black and white” as she’d been led to believe. “What’s that mean?” responds flabbergasted fellow private Rico Cruz (Joseph Julian Soria). While that kind of entrenched, reflexive hostility toward any questioning of top-down loyalty may be exactly the problem, it’s hard to be galvanized by a film whose institutional critique is a watered-down version of, say, Amnesty International’s. Besides which, X-Ray is extremely dull, and unwisely trusting in the power of its talented central duo to carry the film. The movie can’t get enough of a charge out of running through a predictable unlikely friendship arc confined to the drabbest of settings.