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PARK CITY - Kristen Stewart's involvement will no doubt bring a certain amount of attention to Peter Sattler's debut feature film, "Camp X-Ray," which is probably the best use she could make of the stardom she seemed so uncomfortable with in the wake of the massive success of the "Twilight" series.
That discomfort, evident in pretty much any interview or red carpet she's ever done, is one of the her assets as a performer, and in the right role, it can be a very compelling thing. She stars as Cole, a young soldier stationed as a guard at Guantanamo Bay eight years after the events of 9/11. The movie unfolds in a very deliberate, experiential way. It actually opens with the smoking World Trade Center on TV. We see that we're in a hotel room. There's a man with several cell phones praying to Mecca. In mid-prayer, he is grabbed, a bag pulled over his head, and then we see a series of images of various people being transferred to Guantanamo. Our last glimpse of him is huddled in a cage, face bloodied and bruised, with armed soldiers all around.
Eight years later, once Cole starts her tour at Gitmo, we catch up with Ali (Payman Maadi), who is still being detained. The film paints a portrait of the daily life of both the soldiers who are stationed there and the detainees (it is pointed out early on that they are never to be referred to as "prisoners" because of the Geneva Conventions), and perhaps the strongest thing Sattler does is try to maintain a neutral eye as he looks at the way this situation affects both sides.
When I wrote a review of "Lone Survivor" recently, I got some angry reactions from people upset that I didn't like the movie and that I questioned the value of the mission depicted in the film. One of the oddest cognitive disconnects possible is when someone tells you to shut up and keep your opinion to yourself because soldiers are fighting for your freedom. Never mind the fact that stifling an opinion you don't like runs entirely counter to the notion of freedom. What really seems strange to me about that reaction is the idea that someone genuinely believes that my personal freedom is impacted one way or another by what happened to a handful of SEALs on a mountain in Afghanistan, or the notion that same freedom depends on the actions of soldiers in a military prison in Cuba. Whether Sattler wants his film to be political or not, it is, simply by virtue of the ideas it addresses. While I understand the hole that our government dug for itself with the detainees, I don't understand the utter lack of forward motion regarding what we're supposed to do with these people. At what point do we admit that our security theater has been unsuccessful, and how do we even begin to address the mistakes we've made regarding some of these people?
Slowly, a rapport develops between Cole and Ali, and both Stewart and Maadi do excellent work in the film. Maadi captures the rage and the helplessness and the struggle to maintain some semblance of sanity when locked in an insane situation with no end in sight. Stewart manages to etch a very empathetic portrait of a young woman who isn't completely comfortable with what she's being asked to do, and the obvious ambivalence she has towards her hometown that she escaped and the life she's signed up for make her the perfect guide for us through what is a very complicated moral landscape. Sattler wisely never tries to portray Ali as a complete innocent. The opening scenes with him are just quick enough, full of small details that are hard to sort out, that it's hard not to think that he was involved in something. But what? And when there's no trial and no push to learn anything from the people being detained, what's the point? For a country that spends so much time talking about the importance of freedom, we seem perfectly content to deny that to people over vague possible wrongdoing, and happy to have those people out of sight where we don't have to think about it.
On the bus after the film, one guy was loudly complaining that the film only bothered to humanize one of the detainees, but I think that's actually sort of canny on Sattler's part. The more of the detainees he introduces and the more he tries to paint full pictures of each of them, the less time he has to do so. Instead, by focusing on Cole and Ali, he's doing his best to let them stand as representatives for both sides, and in their human interaction, we can see the entire dynamic of Guantanamo Bay writ large. There's a moment early on where Cole and Ali talk about the books on the small library cart that she's tasked with rolling around for the prisoners, and while it's both absurdly funny and completely mundane, it says a lot about both of them. Cole resists listening to anything Ali is saying beyond a surface level, because it is easier to treat him as a faceless number than it is to acknowledge that he is a human being locked in confinement for eight years without any sort of due process, and Ali is so focused on his own outrage that he doesn't see how dangerous it is for any guard to deal with him on a personal level.
Little by little, though, there are shifts in perception and moments of understanding and by the end of the film, there is something real that happens between them. There's no giant dramatic impossible conclusion built into the film by Sattler. He knows that this situation will keep rolling on for the foreseeable future, and that no one soldier and no one detainee will change that. But his film dares to suggest that the only true chance there is for any solution exists when we see each other as something more than labels and surfaces, an idea that evidently still terrifies many people on both sides of the equation.
Technical support is strong for Sattler on the film, and special note must be made of the work by Richard Wright, the film's production designer. He's done a great job of creating a Guantanamo Bay that feels real and functional instead of a movie set. The film is carefully shot, with a fine eye for detail, by James Laxton, and Jess Stroup's score offers fine emotional shading without hammering anything. The rest of the cast is also very good, with Lane Garrison in fine form as Corporal Ransdell, the Texas-bred roughneck who Cole answers to directly. I really like the way his character's written so he never tips into easy caricature, and John Carroll Lynch is equally good as Col. Drummond, the C.O. of the base. The film paints a frustrating picture of what it must be like to serve in the modern military in a bureaucratic position, but instead of casting the military as villains or heroes, it simply tries to capture the contradictions that drive most of their daily behaviors. There is a very deliberate pace to the film that may be intentional, but it still feels like it takes a while for the story to find its focus, which could be an issue for many viewers.
"Camp X-Ray" is going to be a hard commercial sell, but the film has a delicate human heart, and it is ultimately rewarding. I think it's a strong indication of what Stewart can do with the right material, and it makes a case for Maadi as one of the most interesting character actors working right now. Solid, small, and sincere, "Camp X-Ray" offers an important perspective to a difficult conversation.
"Camp X-Ray" plays twice tomorrow, once on Monday, then two more times during the festival, and I suspect those of you not at Sundance will get your own chance to see it very soon.
Everything: Sundance Film Festival
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