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Review:  Flawed ‘Camp X-Ray’ still exposes truths in war on terror

Kristen Stewart in "Camp X-Ray."
(Beth Dubber / Sundance Institute)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

One thing director Peter Sattler gets right in the new film “Camp X-Ray” is the way life can entrap even without prison walls. Pvt. Cole, a young soldier played by Kristen Stewart, joins the Army to escape small-town Florida and ends up guarding Ali, a Guantanamo Bay prisoner played by “A Separation” star Payman Maadi. From scraps of conversation, you gather Cole was as eager to leave her home’s mentality as much as the reality, only to find a different brand of small-mindedness and repression in this man’s army.

It helps if you think of “Camp X-Ray” and the prison face-off between Stewart and Maadi as a cautionary conversation unfolding more like a theater production than a movie.

In their tête-à-têtes, provocative moments emerge as writer-director Sattler zeros in on the unlikely and uneasy friendship that develops between Cole and Ali.

Otherwise, the drama has a tendency to slip into stereotypes a bit too easily, military misogyny, terrorist ideology and xenophobia among them. It’s not that those elements don’t exist in the real world, especially in places like Gitmo where being detained as a terrorist suspect can feel like a life sentence without the trial. But by boiling too much down to black and white, “Camp X-Ray’s” ability to say something significant is diluted.

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Ali is shown briefly in his pre-prison days, somewhere in the Middle East readying a bunch of cellphones for something, no clue as to what, when he’s caught in a sweep. Black bag over his head, in chains, he’s flown to Guantanamo. He’s not the leader of his cellblock; he spends his time reading, praying and resisting where he can.

Cole joins the high-security detail as part of the regular rotation of new blood. Her first real encounter with Ali is over books — she’s delivering them, he’s complaining about a conspiracy to keep Harry Potter’s last from him. She thinks “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is an Arabic book.

With that kind of cultural counterpoint established, Sattler starts escalating the hostilities between Ali and Cole. There is what should be a deal-breaker involving watered-down filth in the face. But watching the punishment that follows, something shifts inside Cole.

The film finds its footing as their fragmented conversations expand. By laying out the arguments in bits and pieces, Sattler keeps the dialogue from overstating the case. If only the other characters were drawn with as much restraint. Instead we have a sea of mostly anonymous, screaming faces in the detainees and, on the other side, jacked-up alpha males in uniform. Sgt. Ransdell (Lane Garrison), Cole’s supervisor, is a particularly nasty piece of work, especially after she resists his advances.

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The director, making his feature-film debut with “Camp X-Ray,” comes out of graphic design, and you can see that influence in the way he’s constructed the set. The cellblock, its tight walkways hemmed in by cinderblock and steel rooms, the monochromatic look mirroring the soldiers’ fatigues, does much to create a claustrophobic, minimalist vibe. Director of photography James Laxton goes in close so often it can feel like the walls are coming in.

Within the constraints, Stewart and Maadi find the right rhythms to make Cole and Ali’s exchanges seem real, even Ali’s slight crush — the care he begins taking to trim his mustache — are humanizing.

A locked-down soldier is a good fit for Stewart’s interior acting style. The skittish looks the actress slips between hard glares or icy outrage bring a kind of understated electricity to Cole. And the impact that comes when she softens, even slightly, is first rate as she continues to evolve the further away she gets from “Twilight’s” teenage Bella. But there is an edginess that flows through all of her work — especially effective as a young Joan Jett in “The Runaways” — and one hopes she’ll never lose that.

Maadi is always an intriguing and enigmatic presence on screen. There’s a latent scowl that gives his look a kind of mystery and possible menace even when there is nothing else to indicate it. But it is the way he uses the eyes under those brows that is so potent. Intelligence, outrage, kindness, bemusement, he delivers it all with a glance. If you haven’t seen his performance as a distressed Iranian husband in “A Separation,” which won the foreign language Oscar in 2012, put it on your DVD to-do list.

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As to Sattler, though he stumbles in this first outing, at times mightily — the ending is too ludicrous for words — he makes room for Stewart and Maadi to build a different narrative than we’re used to in the war on terror. One that allows a little understanding to creep in.

Follow me on Twitter: @BetsySharkey

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‘Camp X-Ray’

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MPAA rating: R for language and brief nude images

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood


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