A you-are-there portrait of the war in Iraq as experienced by American soldiers in central Baghdad, "Gunner Palace" vividly delivers important images of the conflict. Rough-and-ready pic has some commercial prospects in limited theatrical release before finding broader exposure on homevid, DVD and cable.

A you-are-there portrait of the war in Iraq as experienced by American soldiers in central Baghdad, “Gunner Palace” vividly delivers important images of the conflict, hitherto unavailable to the public. Made without any overt political agenda, direct cinema-style docu clearly demonstrates that, for the soldiers themselves, the issue isn’t politics or democratization but simply day-to-day survival. Rough-and-ready pic, which was acquired by Palm Pictures after its Telluride world premiere, has some commercial prospects in limited theatrical release before finding broader exposure on homevid, DVD and cable.

Co-director Michael Tucker, who’s from a military family, did two one-month stints with the roughly 400 members of the Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery, first in September 2003 and again in February 2004. In between, the troop made the cover of Time magazine as “Person of the Year.” Home for these volunteer soldiers during their 410-day tours of duty is the enormous, bombed out Azimiya Palace, one of the gaudy creations of Saddam Hussein that served as a pleasure palace for his son, Uday.

While the men (only one female soldier is glimpsed) are sometimes seen kicking back — the palace has a pool and putting green — pic’s focus is trained on their daily rounds. Tucker regularly jumps, “Cops”-style, right into the Humvees along with the soldiers, providing a valuable look at Iraq the way they see it. There are the bustling streets of downtown Baghdad; the vigilant lookout for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices); a contentious local council meeting; surprise raids on homes in search of suspects or weapons caches; rocks thrown by bystanders at vehicles; an Iraqi civil defense drill, and dealings with locals ranging from a kid zonked out on glue to possible spies and insurgents.

Through it all, the soldiers comment on what’s going on, sometimes via engaging, eloquently wrought raps. Mostly very young men, they have the spirit and confidence of youth honed to a physical peak and an attitudinal sharpness undiluted by drink or drugs, unlike some of their counterparts of the Vietnam era. There’s an expected degree of macho cockiness, but the dominant personal trait is a prudence born of the knowledge that death may await in any bag lying on the street or in any truck that may pull up next to you.

When Tucker returns for his second visit to Gunner Palace, which is located in what at least then was one of the most dangerous districts of Baghdad, he learns that while he was gone, several officers have been killed by roadside bombs. During the period the film was made, eight men attached to 2/3 FA were killed.

As it jumps around from soldier to soldier to reveal the diversity of American military experiences in Iraq, the film allows acquaintanceship but not closeness to its subjects; it’s not a work in which one becomes deeply connected to the people in it. At the same time, it makes quite clear how one can, without contradiction, support the troops individually and collectively, and still object to the enterprise that put them in this very foreign and increasingly perilous environment.

There is also a decided pop culture aspect to the way the viewer experiences the film, as well as to the soldiers’ consciousness of it. “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie,” one young man raps, and the film indisputably resembles a reality show in some respects, one marked by rapid lurches between action and boredom rather than by manufactured melodrama.

Put together by Tucker and his co-director/editor wife Petra Epperlein without a hint of artifice, docu offers up its sounds and images bluntly, and they are very much sounds and images worth having as part of the record.

Gunner Palace

Germany - U.S.

Production

A Palm Pictures release of a Nomados Films production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced, directed, edited by Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein.

Crew

Camera (color, video), Tucker; sound, Chris Muller. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 5, 2004. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Reel to Reel.) Running time: 85 MIN.
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