Channeling Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs,” Kristen Stewart delivers a solid performance as a rookie Guantanamo Bay guard in “Camp X-Ray,” a competently directed, politically questionable film whose most appreciative viewers will leave feeling better about Gitmo. Personalizing the war on terror through its story of the tricky friendship that develops between Stewart’s tough-and-tender private and a Middle Eastern inmate (Payman Maadi) whom she’s instructed never to call a prisoner (those are protected by the Geneva Convention), first-time writer-director Peter Sattler’s pic means very well, but strains credibility and ethics alike. Commercial prospects appear limited.
Much of the dialogue-driven film has Maadi’s Ali, more cat than mouse, and Stewart’s Cole, frightened but drawn in, conversing through the tiny window in his cell, a conceit that puts the pic firmly in the company of “Lambs,” not least when the private refers to her charge as “Lecter.“
Like Clarice Starling, Pvt. Cole is a young woman from a small town who’s challenged to keep her cool as the incarcerated man taunts, intrigues and occasionally humiliates her — most violently here in a scene that informs the viewer of what U.S. military guards apparently call a fecal “cocktail.” (Stewart’s slight resemblance to Foster — first noticed by David Fincher, who cast the two as mother and daughter in “Panic Room” — only adds to the similarity between Starling and Cole.)
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Set mostly in the late aughts, the movie begins in 2001 with TV news images of the Twin Towers spewing smoke, followed by the brisk apprehension of three Middle Eastern men, one of whom is Ali. The first reel of “Camp X-Ray” amounts to Sattler’s most gripping filmmaking by far, as it also includes the startling sight of Stewart looking stern and beaten down as Cole, who arrives to work on a Gitmo cell block eight years after 9/11. Alas, the early promise of an aptly intense look at U.S. detention center realities gradually gives way to something a good deal gentler — and a lot less plausible.
An avid reader of both the Quran and the Harry Potter books (all but the last one, anyway), Ali brilliantly manages to get Cole talking, taking her aback with his commentary on the library materials she distributes to inmates. That the Gitmo guards have withheld the final Potter volume from circulation gives Cole a rather predictable choice to make, while allowing Sattler to portray a rather more tolerable cruelty than any informed American citizen is likely to have heard about before.
“Camp X-Ray” is most commendable for believably depicting the U.S. military from a female’s point of view, particularly as Cole gets mistreated by a macho male corporal (Lane Garrison) and dares to fight the invisible war by filing a report with the commanding officer (John Carroll Lynch). So, too, the film treats its characters, guards and inmates alike, with clear compassion, although, as a terror-war movie, its preoccupation with the heartwarming exception to the rule too often turns bold American drama into standard operating procedure.
The two leads are excellent and play off each other deftly. Acting almost exclusively with his bearded face as seen through the cell window, Maadi (“A Separation”) calibrates precisely the character’s mix of humor, anger, despair and endurance. In a turn that will surprise and impress those who know her only from the “Twilight” films, Stewart is riveting, especially in the final scenes, where Sattler reverses the camera’s perspective so that Cole is the one viewed through the window, appearing as a sort of prisoner herself.
Editing of the nearly two-hour film could be much tighter, particularly in the midsection. James Laxton’s widescreen cinematography effectively communicates tension in both open and confined spaces. Other tech credits are sharp, with the exception of a bumpy sound mix.