The much celebrated American war genre is arguably famed for its patriotism. From the bloodied sands of the beaches of Normandy to the war-torn streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, the star-spangled banner never seems to be trailing too far behind. Odd then be it that rookie director Peter Sattler demands nothing of the sorts from his debut effort, a subverted war-drama set within the very heart of America’s morally-questionable Guantanamo Bay.
Camp X-Ray finds fresh-faced new recruit Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart) stationed at the aforementioned Guantanamo Bay. There, she is forced to endure the true horrors of one of the world’s most infamous detainment camps as she rotates through a host of ethically ambiguous tasks. However, it is not until she befriends arabic detainee Ali, a branded terrorist who believes himself innocent, that Cole begins to question the true integrity of her country and the military she serves under.
Despite its investigative structure, to label Sattler’s film as unpatriotic would be deeply incorrect. Although Camp X-Ray by no means sings the praises of the United States military, it throws no heavy stones either, adopting a supposedly honest approach but one that never digs too deep or questions too harshly. Sattler is careful to at no time appear accusing, but in doing so loses the very back-bone of his film; X-Ray’s moral quandaries never quite hit home, relegating it to a simple character drama at best.
Luckily, this side to the film still stands fairly strong on its own. Kristen Stewart’s understated lead is both firm and likable, supported well by X-Ray’s unsentimental tone and Payman Maadi’s lively companion performance. The pair’s chemistry never quite fully takes off until the film’s dying moments, stripping X-Ray of a great deal of its emotional weight, but Sattler’s well-honed parallels between the two characters stand as a more than adequate replacement.
Ultimately, although entertaining and crafted with a steady hand, Camp X-Ray suffers from an unfortunate lack of audacity, making it far from as daring as initially intended. Peter Sattler’s skills behind the camera are clear to see and his ability to create engaging drama is commendable, but with a subject as highly contentious as this at play, it really feels like he should have dug ever so slightly deeper. Solid, but never gripping.
Camp X-Ray, directed by Peter Sattler, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival on 9, 10 and 17 October. Tickets are available from whatson.bfi.org.uk. Watch the trailer below: