A movie about downtrodden men forced to live in tiny cells under the relentless guard of cold and often harshly rude soldiers is bound to draw us emotionally closer to the prisoners. In some scenes we might even mistake the “captors” for the terrorists, so de-humanizing is their conduct; the “detainees”, on the contrary, could almost pass as Kafkaesque victims of cruel men and women who enforce an institutionalized form of torture in the name of “freedom” and “justice”.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m just as uncomfortable about Guantanamo as the next person. Maybe it’s my Christian upbringing, but I believe that no human being should have to endure such forms of physical and especially psychological torture, especially when there is no plausible reason to keep them that way (does anyone honestly believe they are of “intelligence value”?). What I take issue with is the unbalanced way in which the situation is presented. The viewer becomes so immersed in the movie – and in the beautifully unfolding relationship between Private Cole and detainee Ali Amir – that he almost forgets that the people we take pity on are no less than those who plotted 9/11 and similar attacks on the US… the folks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the name of an extremist pseudo-religion that believes the United States, the “Great Satan”, has to be brought down with every means.
Having said this, I can’t deny that I was moved, because the acting by Kristen Stewart and Peyman Mooadi is superb, and I could certainly empathize with the plight of men in their forties and fifties who will probably spend the rest of their life in near-cages, with little or anything to look forward to besides reading the latest Harry Potter book or engaging in a few minutes of conversation with someone who, for a brief moment, forgets about the rigid, robotic “S.O.Ps” (standard operating procedures) and actually treats them like a normal human being. At the beginning of the movie, the Captain that briefs the new Privates says (roughly): “your job is not to prevent them from escaping; the walls will take care of that. No, your job is to keep them from killing themselves”. Ironically, this fundamental goal is achieved by breaching the SOPs: it is by becoming friends with detainee Ali and talking with him every night that Private Cole averts his suicidal tendencies. The message I get – and agree with – is that the way to make Guantanamo bearable for the detainees (and, I would add, to make it more acceptable to public opinion worldwide) is to loosen the rules and to improve the conditions of detention, starting with the interaction between guards and prisoners. The US should not be afraid of setting higher standards, even with its most ruthless “war detainees”.
Beyond that, I definitely don’t buy what I consider to be the final message of the movie, which is summarized in Private Cole’s handwritten dedication of the new Harry Potter book for Ali: “you are a good man”. It is obvious to me that she – as well as the filmmaker – has let her sense of pity obfuscate the crimes against humanity that her new “friend” has committed. I like the movie’s point about our common humanity and the inherent dignity of every person, including terrorists; but it definitely goes too far when it attempts to “turn the tables” by making US servicemen the “bad guys” and Al Qaeda operatives the “good guys”. To say that a 9/11 conspirator is entitled to be treated humanely is one thing; to proclaim him “good” (as opposed, implicitly, to the “bad” army personnel he is surrounded by), is downright preposterous.
Writer/Director Peter Sattler (who, btw, has made an impressive debut), should’ve considered infusing the movie with more shots from 9/11 or with some scenes of Ali plotting to kill Americans, perhaps taking example from Tim Robbins’ “Dead Man Walking”, which strikes an excellent balance between drawing our sympathy for the plight of the man about to be executed without taking our attention away from the heinous crimes he committed. Unfortunately, Sattler opts for a different, if more subtle, parallel: in a particularly well-shot and poignant scene, he alternates bits from a military flag-rising ceremony with flashes from a detainee collective praying ceremony, implicitly – and disturbingly – making the argument that each party – the US and al Al Qaeda – has its own set of values and allegiances, as if to minimize the moral differences between the two… Call me a bigot, but to me a great movie should not contain as much as a hint of moral ambiguity on such grave matters.
(PS. It also bugs me that the movie was called “Camp X-Ray”, instead of “Camp Delta”, where the movie actually takes place. Camp X-Ray was Guantanamo’s first cell block, which had open-air “cages”, but that’s not where Ali and his fellow detainees spend their days in the movie. I guess the filmmakers just thought X-Ray sounded better…).