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It's now 2005. American troops have long since left the target of the original aggression – the Taliban-hugging nation of Afghanistan – for the far less certain concerns of Iraq. The dictator of that seen as sinister nation, Saddam Hussein, has been deposed, and the country has actually held its first free elections. And yet there is no exit strategy for the United States, no clear timetable for removing the troops and returning home. During the height of the post-war work, journalist/filmmaker Michael Tucker was invited to take a first hand view of the situation inside the Middle Eastern nation, to live with and ride along with American troops as they implemented often-unclear guiding principles for the region and its people. The result is Gunner Palace, a fascinating, often flawed documentary depicting of the day-to-day problems and pitfalls of the young men and women working to keep Iraq stable and secure. And just like everyone else, they appear to be looking for 'good' reasons for their own involvement as well.
In its prime, it was Uday Hussein's (son of Saddam) pleasure palace – it's gigantic ballrooms, elaborate bedchambers and oversized swimming pool the symbol of decadent dictatorial nepotism. But ever since American troops invaded Iraq to depose the government, wipe out terrorism and install democracy, it has been headquarters to the 2/3 Field Artillery, known as "The Gunners". Part operations unit, part barracks/recreational bunkhouse, the bombed out manor now houses a diverse and dedicated group of young men and women, all sent to a foreign land in the center of the most volatile region in the world with one single mission: defeat insurgency, train new police forces and maintain order.
Michael Tucker, a Seattle journalist and filmmaker now living in Germany, spent two months with the Gunners, learning about the daily grind and nightly terror they must endure while attempting to fulfill their obligations. Mortar shells land precariously close to the estate perimeter, while treks into the city bring a confusing combination of admiration and abhorrence; thanks can be exchanged as readily as rocks and bottles. During their downtime, the soldiers indulge in a few of the luxuries of home – music, computer games, partying – but they never seem to lose sight of the fact that they are thousands of miles from their native soil, part of an assignment that gets more confusing as the days drag on.
This is their story. This is Gunner Palace.
Welcome to the real war in Iraq. Unlike any battle line documentary you have ever seen, Gunner Palace is a shocking, sobering snapshot of the current conflict in the Middle East. Gone are the references to freedom and 9/11. Absent is the government rhetoric offering propaganda-like pronouncements of the military's effectiveness. Certainly we hear the occasional Armed Forces Radio and TV (AFRTV) broadcast with quotes and comments from the White House and staff, a combination of pathetic PR pep rallying and depressing double-speak. But these speeches of support always seem to get stifled, cut off by the sound of the city, or left incomplete as the real action begins to pick up.
This is the job, not the adventure. This is the reality, not the multimedia slick hype. No one here is being all they can be. Truth be told, they are merely doing what is necessary to achieve their goals, accomplish their duty and return home alive. As the voiceover narration by filmmaker Michael Tucker proclaims, this is the new Army...the army of one. A combat concept where the group no longer matters – it's what you can contribute, not what the unit can achieve. Indeed, Gunner Palace is out to rewrite the preconception of the American military and its near infallible image. It is not a film focusing on the terror of combat or the atrocities of battle. It is not a movie mired in misinformation and abject jingoism. It's the story of real people doing a near superhuman task for the sake of a situation most barely comprehend – and how such a position potentially poisons their perception.
Gunner Palace is clearly meant to cut both ways, to support our men and women while simultaneously questioning the overall Iraq policy. How else would you justify the use of humor and (horrid) rap as a theme for the pointless night patrols and tireless, ineffectual raids? Had director Tucker tricked us, throwing in the successful breakup of a major terrorist cell, we'd understand the need to let off some insubordinate steam. But when the only successful mission we see nets three RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) weapons from a sack stored in an air duct, the resulting pool party blowout seems almost surreal.
Indeed, most of Gunner Palace is couched in such bizarre, dreamlike dimensions. After decades of watching actors trudge through the trenches, storm the shores of a D-Day France, or wade through the brackish water of a Vietnamese jungle Hell, to see the flat, faceless facade of Iraq spread out like the desert it is made from, buildings being the sole source of fortification, turns battle into something quite baffling. So does the off-hours footage. Soldiers strumming guitars and playing death metal riffs for native Arab interpreters is just – odd. Seeing them download porn or have fun with first person shooter games on their laptop computers is even more disconcerting. During the first Gulf War, many pundits argued that technology was turning combat into something more suitable for the Playstation. By Iraq, such sentiments are scarily prophetic – and very, very real.
But this is not the most unsettling thing in Gunner Palace. This is a movie that does not show casualties or war wounded, a film that couldn't care less about the blood and guts of warfare. Indeed, the fighting itself – if and when there is some – is not the most frightening aspect here. The combat in Iraq is sporadic, poorly organized and fueled by religious and ideological passion – not a good combination for effective conflict. Instead, the streets of Baghdad are more like those of South Central Los Angeles, or any other center of urban unrest. Violence can and does arrive at any moment, from any source or circumstance. But it is almost always the result of rage and revenge, not real or rational strategies.
When pushed to identify the number one fear among the troops though, the answer is almost universal – IEDs. The acronym stands for Improvised Explosive Devices and these basic, sloppy bombs that can be easily hidden and incredibly deadly. Soldiers fear these most of all because, unlike gunfire, you never hear the piece of metal with your name on it until well after the detonation – if ever.
The most disquieting aspect of this movie however, are the individuals that it highlights. Hopefully anyone assuming that this will be an anti-American, leftist-leaning rant will take heart in understanding that Tucker isn't out to expose corruption or dissention in the ranks. No, this is just a slice of life, told by individuals who aren't afraid to do as they feel and speak their minds. Problem is, many of these soldiers are fresh out of high school, teenagers wearing their pop culture proclivities and insular worldview directly out and on their military issue sleeves. The result is scary, since it argues that events capable of turning the world inside out are being controlled and monitored by drop out and disaffected, directionless youth.
If there is a "star" in Gunner Palace, it would be SPC Stuart Wilf. Tucker's narration gives him an ominous, hair-trigger temperament, stating that he comes from "somewhere in Colorado – near Columbine". A better location indicator, based on the way this nonstop cut-up acts, would be South Park. Wilf thinks he's the Iraqi bee's knees, and the rest of his unit is right there to back his buffoonery. Whether it's countering Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's comments on how the $87 billion Congress dedicated to the war meant that troops now had state of the art armor on their vehicles (which Wilf points out, allows the shrapnel to STAY in your body, not quickly pass through) to dressing like an Arab and doing a dopey, racially insensitive dance, Wilf is stand-up without a brick wall to back him. He's unbridled Id fueled by fear and the limelight of a camera. All he has is the palace, a place that he rules like the hard rock loving court jester he is. And he more than anyone else, tries to make the most of it.
Certainly, there are other soldiers who counter Wilf's ADHD antics, thoughtful souls who put their, and the United State's, place in this predicament clearly and precisely into perspective. One solemn member of the Gunners laments that he joined the Army to defend his country, something he feels he is no longer doing. Trying to bring democracy to a nation not necessarily interested in said sentiment has no bearing on why he enlisted. He's not protecting the US – he's babysitting a powder keg. Others lament the passive role played by politicians, arguing that they understand NOTHING about the insecurity and vulnerability of the American position in Iraq. Many just want to go home to loved ones and normalcy. Others hope they've made some difference. Not everyone has Wilf's desire to turn war into his own personal piece of performance art, but many don't mind giving it a little gansta' edge (more on this in a moment).
All of this might make you think that Gunner Palace is the perfect Fahrenheit 9/11 antidote, a fascinating film that takes the edge off the nationalistic nature of the post-millennial White House. But in many ways, Tucker's film is a bigger indictment of the Bush administration that Michael Moore's Me-First movie could ever be. All the stories and rumors we hear about the less than stellar end-game strategy the US has for Iraq are played out in spades via Tucker's tireless recording. Raids on supposed cells of terrorists yield nothing, while one overweight "financier" is taken into custody for having several new cellphones and $100K+ in US dollars stashed in his house. We see more frightened old ladies and aimless children than insurgents with weapons and the will. In many ways, the various scouting trips and recognizance missions are justification for keeping the troops in the country. But one can also argue that America really doesn't know what to do with the nation it conquered (or "freed"). The incursions then become a metaphor to aimlessness, of doing anything to avoid looking ineffectual and lost.
And then there is the rap. Endless scenes of soldiers 'freestylin'', proving time and again why they are in the military and not on the pop charts. Unlike their MTV mired brethren, these soggy street poets don't have the skills to pay the GI bills. They can barely rhyme and reduce warfare to a homophobic display of "N" word wizardry. All they need is the misogynistic references to "bitches" and "hoes" and they'd be ready to audition for P Diddy's Making the Band IV. Tucker obviously intends these irritating interludes as a gritty Greek chorus commentary on the realities of Iraq. But aside from a single speaker, who the film labels as the unit "poet", the rest of the hopeless hip-hop functions as a foil to the unflinching facts offered by Gunner Palace. It's just bad beat boxing.
Perhaps like the war on terror itself, Gunner Palace is meant to divide and enrage. For every person who sees the military as hopeless louts without a stick of common decency or empathy for the people whose nation they've ravaged, there will be those who stare in wild-eyed wonder at just how brave and brazen our boys (and the occasional girl) can be, even under the most Hellish of situations. Many will look at Wilf or his rap happy comrades and see them as symbols of stoicism, rising above the fray to keep a little bit of home in their heart while stationed in this less than demilitarized zone. Others will experience their antics, their frayed frustration that leads to outbursts of irrationality and intolerance and believe their worst, myopic military nightmares have been realized.
There is no denying the power in seeing war as it really is – unpredictable and uncontrolled – lacking the choreography of Hollywood action movies or outright politics of other documentary approaches. But Gunner Palace may not really be doing what it thinks it's accomplishing. There is no nobility in ridicule, no professionalism in pawning off responsibility. In some ways, the soldiers here appear exasperated, not invigorated, by having to fulfill their roles as paid members of the US armed forces. They volunteered – but many would argue it wasn't for a tour of duty in a depressing, capricious country filled with so much anti-western sentiment. Even those opposed to the war in Iraq understand the need to support our troops. Too bad the soldiers don't have the same faith in the challenge they've been given. Gunner Palace is not a great film, but it is a contentious one. Everyone should see it, if only to paint the pabulum spoon-fed to us by the Evening News and 24 hour cable news station in realistic, authentic terms.
As a film, Gunner Palace is pretty poor. Tucker is obviously unskilled with a camera when required to do anything other than point and shoot. During the "action" scenes – the raids and routine training missions – his frenetic, handheld style becomes very aggravating and difficult to follow. He also utilizes a less than stellar technological set-up, which means the image presented will flare, bleed, white out and solarize certain sequences unless all the conditions are absolutely perfect. While some or all of this can add an air of authenticity to the showcase, is does not make for a work of cinematic excellence. Palm Pictures does what it can with the DVD transfer, offering a 1.33:1 picture that, while far from faultless, does a decent job of making the visuals clear and crisp.
Since it was not recorded with professional sound equipment, don't let the dual options of Dolby Digital Stereo and 5.1 Surround fool you. The only channel challenging elements are the rap songs – and "challenging" would be a good word for what they do to your aesthetic. The rest of the aural presentation is flat, thin and often indecipherable. Chalk up the lack of clarity to the camcorder concept of dialogue recording. This is why several of the scenes are subtitled. It is not an artistic element to add emphasis to a particular statement or idea. It's done so that we can hear what's going on.
There is one major, and three very minor bonus features on this DVD. The only additional context comes from the 17 additional clips included here, running about 27 minutes total. Interspersed among more musical moments and calm confessionals are scenes of the 2/3 FA preparing to return home and a prophetic bit with Wilf, home from the war, who is driving around and complaining about how his friends really don't appreciate what he did. What's most interesting about this latter sequence is that news reports on the 'Net indicate that Wilf had a major car accident after returning from Iraq. And even more amazingly, this man who served his nation soon discovers that he has NO health insurance to pay for his injuries. Information like this would have been perfect for inclusion in Palm Pictures' presentation. Sadly, all we get are some random rap tracks, a Gunner Palace trailer and previews for other Palm Pictures product.
The debate over whether we should have invaded Iraq will never result in a consensus. Both sides have their valid points, while also offering less than well thought out excuses for our involvement - or lack thereof. And perhaps, when all the smoke has cleared and the pontification has been placed in perspective, someone will create the ultimate documentary on the issue. But Gunner Palace is not that film. If anything it will energize both sides, giving them ample ammunition to fight their own war of words over the people placed in charge of our participation, as well as the policies they have to enact. Wilf and his buddies will be the litmus test for our interest, just as the half-assed missions they manage to accomplish will highlight/hinder the need for a further escalation. Of course, in the end, it will all come down to reasons – and none of them actually good. The same applies to the film. Gunner Palace is highly recommended, but the rationale for such a rating is less than convincing. This is not a great film. But it is a very telling one. And maybe with a subject as divisive as this one, that's all that matters.
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