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GUNNER PALACE (directors: Petra Epperlein/Michael Tucker; cinematographer: Michael Tucker; editors: Petra Epperlein/Michael Tucker; music: Robert Cimino; Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Petra Epperlein/Michael Tucker; Palm Pictures; 2004)
“A rambling war documentary without a political agenda about U.S. soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery stationed in Iraq.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Gunner Palace is a rambling war documentary without a political agenda about U.S. soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery stationed in Iraq, as the camera follows them around while they go out on their daily missions that include raids on houses of suspected insurgents, the constant search for weapons and training of Iraqi troops. It aims to give one an idea of what it’s like to be an American soldier there. There are no civilians coming out with flowers to cheer the troops as liberators as once declared would happen by the Bush team, instead there are signs saying Americans should go home and occasionally there are rocks thrown at them as they patrol the city, and every mission is fraught with the danger from an IED or RPG attack. There’s a full blast of rap music from the black troops (seemingly the music of choice among the troops), loads of gallows’s humor and testy sarcastic comments, a few editorial comments such as a soldier in a joking manner telling about the flimsy armor on the Humvees, and the overall hope expressed by the troops that they can at least make a difference for a better Iraq and stay alive and return home in one piece. It gives the viewer a bird’s eye view of what’s it like to be soldiering in Iraq after President Bush’s infamous pronouncement of Mission Accomplished, that the fighting is over, but offers little hope that this confusing war (called a “minor combat operation” by the administration) is explainable or going well despite ridiculously optimistic messages sent by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of how peachy everything is going.

The documentary is by Michael Tucker and his wife Petra Epperlein (Tucker comes from an army family). They had two one-month stays with the troops, in September 2003 and February 2004, staying with the 400 hundred troops at the bombed-out Baghdad pleasure palace of Saddam Hussein’s ruthless playboy son Uday (located in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya). Gunner Palace is the nickname the soldiers gave to their new headquarters. During their time off the soldiers listen to music, do some putting on a minature golf green, fish in a pond on the estate, swim in a luxurious pool and lounge around drinking soft drinks, but never venture into the inhospitable and unsafe city. All the soldiers interviewed appeared to have a limited education and seemed to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. During the filming, eight soldiers in the unit died (with all the deaths taking place off camera). The emotional impact was felt, as even in this rather sketchy documentary we could still identify with them.

The soldiers use profane language, appear unhappy that there’s no beer and that they are not wanted by the Iraqis to the point of becoming targets. The mostly young soldiers (many are only teenagers) show little political savvy about what’s going on in the middle-east but are proud that they can serve their country and at such a young age be in a war. This film to its credit is the first documentary about the war in Iraq to be shot and released while the war was still taking place. Though not great filmmaking, basically putting a camera and a microphone in front of the troops and letting it rip from there, it nevertheless gives those hungry for what the war really looks like something to go on. One soldier says it will probably only be entertainment for those back home, that the only ones who look on with alarm are those who have loved ones fighting there … Right on, man!

The film’s main problem is that it doesn’t clear up any of the confusion we have about the war but only adds to that confusion by this incoherent narrative–as it offers us nothing to get excited about, like if there’s an exit strategy in place. It’s even more alarming to hear that the suspects arrested (even when no weapons were found) are sent to Abu Ghraib, and we all know what went down in that prison. But its major worth is that its shot on camcorder and the soldiers were media savvy and knew how to perform in front of the camera (that’s what years of watching Oprah will get you). They hit a raw nerve about the war, giving us an honest record of what’s going down compared to the administrations spin on things. The comments from the rappers give us the most cutting way the troops see this war, as the unit’s poet in residence Specialist Richmond Shaw concludes: “Cuz for y’all this is just a show but we live in this movie.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”