Examining “Camp X-Ray”

Screening of "Camp X-Ray" at NYU's Forum Film Festival

Screening of “Camp X-Ray” at NYU’s Forum Film Festival

So there was that time I was on a flight back home from Afghanistan when I was wide awake on the airplane and the only thing showing on the airplane was one of those terrible “Twilight” movies, which I watched in its entirety. I probably don’t need to go any further with my description of how I felt about this. I tucked this memory away into the recesses of my pop culture knowledge, which I fortunately don’t need to delve into very frequently. So when a friend invited me to the screening of Peter Sattler’s new film, “Camp X-Ray” at NYU last night, I totally missed the fact that it starred Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame… until I got there and looked at the program… and then noticed an audience packed with young women who seemed to be “Twilight” superfans who were there to see Stewart speak in person after the screening. Face-palm.

But I have to say that, even despite the fairly silly inaccuracies of the film’s portrayal of Army life, I ended up genuinely liking and relating to Stewart’s portrayal of a soldier overseeing detainees at Guantanamo Bay. She captures an uncomplicated, but nevertheless honorable young soldier from a small town who is tough, eager, honest, proud of her military service, and unafraid to deal with matters of conscience. I think it’s a solid portrayal of a young woman serving as an MP, even if Sattler gets a lot of his details about the military wrong. (A ludicrous amount of saluting, keg parties in the barracks, etc., plus some fairly implausible scenes and situations.) Nevertheless, Stewart’s character reminded me of several of the amazing women I’ve had the honor of serving with. So that’s a win. And totally unlike all that “Twilight” mess.

“Camp X-Ray” is a close-up of a soldier who is newly assigned to watch over “difficult” detainees in a specific block, with a few scenes of conversations in the camp’s dining facility, hallways, and living quarters, and it takes place sometime around 2009, with the idea that the detainees had become entrenched, and U.S. operations were focused on providing “good” treatment for them.  Sattler could’ve taken an overtly political tack here, and although the film drags in places, I like his choice to avoid overtly taking on torture and politics to instead focus on how a mundane deployment to Guantanamo can be a genuinely difficult experience for individual troops, as well as the nuances of interactions between detainee and MP in this environment. The film isn’t a very effective commentary on the military, or incarceration, or geopolitics, or terrorism–but performances by Stewart and co-star Peyman Moaadi made for some really interesting and powerful moments of human connection that I think make the film well worth seeing. Plus we should still be talking about the complexities of keeping detainees at Guantanamo Bay after all these years, as well as recognizing the service of the men and women who have had the thankless job of serving there.

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