Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Movie review: Gunner Palace ****


Specialist Tom Susdorf at Gunner Palace near Baghdad.


Gunner Palace is on the outskirts of Baghdad in a neighborhood called Adhamiya. It is white, large, and tacky. A stone-lions-on-the-front-lawn kind of mansion, putting it somewhere between neo-classical and neo-Atlantic City, circa 1985.

It was the opulent pleasure dome of Uday, son of Saddam Hussein. The bedroom is round, ornate to an extreme, ballroom massive, and ends abruptly with a bomb crater. Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, American soldiers have lived there. They even renamed it - the Love Shack.

Out back is a football-field-sized swimming pool, fishing pond, and putting green. One solider says they are thinking of adding more holes; that depends on how much time they'll have here. Some days, the tedium becomes unbearable. Some days, you wonder if it's even morally defensible for Gunner Palace to resemble the least-likely spring break destination ever; this is basically a sex palace with cheesier furniture, and the soldiers, who'd rather not be there, make the best of their abandoned digs.

Other days, many days actually, these guys are basically police and social workers, outfitted with extremely large guns. The younger guys carry one more thing: A blank combination of dislocation and fear - a look that asks how they ended up here, between door-battering raids and jittery night patrols, floating in a tyrant's inner tubes.

Gunner Palace is also the title of Michael Tucker's street-level new documentary about what it's like to be an American soldier in Iraq on an average day. It doesn't have an obvious right or left-leaning point of view, though Tucker clearly has opinions: He narrates the film in a bitter whisper, giving extraneous observations about reality TV and the soldiers themselves - observations that muddle an already muddled situation. He asks for sympathy for the soldiers but doesn't show it himself; he appreciates their need to kick back, but can't help cringe at it.

Oddly, this works for the film.

Gunner Palace is very much a product of chaos. It is not against the war, and it is not an argument in support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

You may find it not critical enough of the situation. You may find it not misty-eyed or respectful enough of the soldiers. The footage is messy, surreal, moving, frustrating - and the structure is a shapeless slop, which makes its own kind of virtue: There's no narrative, no obvious end to the war itself, and for whatever certainty of the situation you think you hold, there's something here to contradict it. The lack of clarity on the faces of the soldiers is honest. And their prognosis: inconclusive at best.

That said, whatever your reservations, the impact of the footage is surprising and immediate - so in contradiction to what we see on television or hear from military leaders (whose daily sound bites play on the soundtrack like black comedy) - and takes on vital importance.

If you have loved ones in Iraq, if you're headed there yourself, know someone who is, or know someone coming home - if the entire thing has turned abstract, too removed from your reality to be appreciated, better dealt with by slapping a ribbon magnet on the back of your minivan - Gunner Palace makes the opaqueness of this war clearer.

Or as clear as can be.

Tucker, an American who lives in Germany and comes from a military family, spent a few months of 2003 and 2004 with the 2nd Battalion-3rd Field Artil-lery Division of the Army's First Armored Division. These are the "Gunners." The footage he came back with looks nothing like footage we saw filed by "embedded" TV journalists. There is no mission to be tracked and summarized, there's no hopefulness or despair, and the difference is evident in the way these soldiers regard Tucker and his cameras.

They don't look away or seem to play for the lens. They regard it the way friends talk into palm-held video cameras. However Tucker gained their respect, he did, and the soldiers show no signs of being camera-prepped. They're as blunt with language as you'd expect in a war. The filmmakers lobbied the Motion Picture Association of America and landed a PG-13; considering how young some of these guys are, it's only right. What's also evident is how the culture of war has become a revolving door. You can't watch Gunner Palace without thinking of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and the absurdity that comes with being unclear of your job or purpose.

That's on both sides of the camera. These soldiers are just as aware of the image they're projecting, one that's constructed and filtered through decades of war films. Echoes are all over the place. You're reminded of Three Kings and its hedonism, Apocalypse Now and its own surrealism. More interestingly is the way Tucker (and maybe the guys themselves) can't help but see their view refracted through the lens of first-person video games and TV shows like Cops. He rides to raids, follows behind with a jerky camera, and finds Iraqis with faces pressed into the dust.

It's all strangely familiar.

Tucker mostly used, however, the classic cinema-verite style of documentary filmmaking that only works when you're a fly on the wall. One discovery: Hip hop (no surprise) has replaced rock as the war music of choice. These guys relieve boredom by banging out beats on hoods of Jeeps, free-styling rhymes, and a few are good. They have the insight the threat of sudden danger brings: They're not loved by the Iraqis. Their armor is a joke; one soldier explains how it's strong enough to keep a bullet from going all the way through.

Tucker is wise not to reduce them to talking points. Or worse, red and blue soldiers. Frankly, I went in expecting to interpret the film's footage through my own ideas of the war and came out with an infinitely more complicated view: These guys are smart, brave, questioning, angry. They feel betrayed, abandoned, puzzled, determined. It's easy to forget your cheap viewpoint comes from secondhand knowledge. "For y'all this is just a show," one solider raps into the lens. "But we live in this movie."

Contact Christopher Borrelli at:

or 419-724-6117.

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