|Photo by Michael Tucker|
As late as last week, the makers of Gunner Palace, a heated new documentary that digs in with a field-artillery unit quartered in Uday Hussein’s former palace in Baghdad, were fighting the MPAA over an R rating handed down for the film’s strong language. As always the dirty-words excuse is a red herring, since most children over the age of 8 will have heard them all before and then some. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, the husband-and-wife team who made Gunner Palace, argued for commuting the R to a PG-13 (they won) so that young people of enlistable age could see it and, presumably, just say no to a knock on the door from Army Recruitment. This is high-minded but equally fanciful reasoning: Few potential recruits — for that matter, few under-18 kids of any kind — tend to hang out in art houses, much less spend their evenings watching PBS, where an otherwise powerful Frontline documentary about an army unit in Iraq aired last week, idiotically peppered with prim bleeps.
Watching Gunner Palace, which makes sensational viewing even though its most compelling scenes involve not rocket-grenade launchers but chatty testimony from a chosen few of the 400 soldiers billeted at Uday’s baroque pad, I was thinking less of its impact on America’s youth than on Vietnam veterans, many of whom will see it, and weep for the sympathy they never got back home from opponents of the war.
Thankfully, the left has quit blaming the victim. Gunner Palace’s casually hectic vérité style —Tucker did most of the camera work, while Epperlein edited — overflows with the feverish identification of the deeply, if fleetingly, embedded outsider. Tucker bunked with 2/3 Field Artillery, also known as “The Gunners,” for two periods of a month each in 2003, not long after George Bush had blithely proclaimed major combat operations in Iraq over and done with. The sumptuous palace sits in a now-volatile quarter of the capital, pocked with gaping craters but with its enormous swimming pool and putting green intact so that the soldiers can frolic between mortar attacks and their own forays into the city’s dangerous back alleys. The palace is home base for what the soldiers, with the characteristic gallows humor of those who live in the teeth of death, call “minor combat,” and its ravaged splendor is made for the movies. The film shows how the soldiers, too, draw on cinema to define themselves, donning Hawaiian shirts as in M*A*S*H, or striking macho attitudes, for all the world like extras from an Oliver Stone movie. Tucker himself doesn’t lack for melodramatic flair: He jumps aboard any vehicle that leaves the palace grounds; rides with Humvee patrols through a city that greets the soldiers with gratitude, contempt and indifference in equal measure; takes full emotional advantage of the perilous house raids, conducted in total darkness relieved only by the unit’s livid flashlights; and, gilding the lily with a quotation from Apocalypse Now!, drops a rocked-up version of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries into the score.
Still, there’s no exaggerating the terror of sidling up to an unattended bag, or turning a corner into an alley potentially crawling with terrorists. And it’s impossible to watch any of this without reference to the pop images of war we’ve been fed by CNN and Hollywood. One motor-mouthed, guitar-strumming young specialist, who joined up when he was 17 and looks it, is so funny and engaging, so full of piss and vinegar, he comes across like a Steven Spielberg bit player, predestined to die an agonizing death in the second act while saving the life of another young hero. In the random realities of war, though, the only difference between heroes and victims is survival, as Tucker discovers when he goes home for a break and gets the bad news about several members of the unit.
It’s easy to see why he got so attached: Nothing could be further than these men and women from the public image of mindlessly patriotic dim bulbs who sign on to the military because they have no other options. Patriotic they are, but many are also keenly aware that they are victims not only of an increasingly sophisticated insurgency, but of the muddled ideology behind the occupation. We see them playing happily with children in a Baghdad orphanage, then followed by little boys throwing rocks; hugging their Iraqi interpreters, one of whom turns out to be an insurgent plant; training local men in civil defense, then rooting out the “motherfucker” insurgents in brutal house-to-house searches. They know, as many anti-war activists often do not, that it may not be possible to go into battle without working up a head of steam against the enemy. Yet they understand precisely what a no-win situation both they and the Iraqis are in — that it is psychologically and practically impossible to function as policemen and social workers at the same time. They know they are hated, and what hurts them most is their perception that back home, a public — not hostile this time, but desensitized by the nightly news — doesn’t understand what it feels like to be them. Courtesy of Gunner Palace, the anguished freestyle rap lyrics of two of the unit’s black soldiers have landed them on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Arts and Leisure section. That’s not nothing, but in the words of Specialist Richmond Shaw, “For y’all this is just a show — we live in this movie.”
GUNNER PALACE | Directed and produced by MICHAEL TUCKER and PETRA EPPERLEIN | Released by Palm Pictures | At Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex