GUNNER PALACE ***
DIRECTOR: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for language, violent situations
THE LOWDOWN: A documentary about the Iraq War experience of an Army regiment quartered in a bombed-out Baghdad palace.
"Gunner Palace" is a freewheeling, chaotic documentary about the war in Iraq as experienced by soldiers of the Army's 2/3 Field Artillery Regiment, operating from a bombed-out palace in Baghdad.
Using a hand-held camera, radio reports, interviews and voice-over commentary, filmmaker Michael Tucker offers a grunt's-eye view of the war four months after "major combat" was declared over and the insurgency was heating up, in September 2003.
Uday Hussein's former palace provides an exotic backdrop: Soldiers monitor communications, stand guard and play video games on laptops in bizarre, fairy-tale surroundings of high-ceilinged rooms and rubble-strewn grand staircases. (The palace had a swimming pool, putting green and stocked fishing pond.)
Rather than illuminating the why of the war, the chaotic approach of "Gunner Palace" vividly reflects the confusion about the mission, the chaos of the execution and the complications of the occupation.
Tucker rides along on night raids, as soldiers roust Iraqis out of bed, search for weapons, and dodge rocks thrown by an angry crowd after an explosion near a mosque. A garbage bag at the side of the road sparks fears of an improvised explosive device but turns out to be empty. An American officer tries to mediate a fractious meeting of a district advisory council. One scene after another delivers revelations about the humiliation of occupation and the cultural divide between Iraqis and Americans. (After Americans conduct a raid on a gathering and cart a truckload of handcuffed suspects off to Abu Ghraib, the officer tells those remaining: "Enjoy the rest of your evening." Another soldier describes the frustration of gathering intelligence and the day he made Iraqi men cry by threatening them with Guantanamo.)
During down time, soldiers play electric guitar, scarf Whoppers from Burger King and reflect on the flies and frustration and the absence of beer.
If rock 'n' roll was the soundtrack for the Vietnam War, rap is the soundtrack for this one. Several soldiers offer eloquent raps including this one from Spc. Richmond Shaw:
"But when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit
That's when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy
Cuz for y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie."
Brief interviews with soldiers are revealing. Sgt. Robert Beatty angrily talks about the impossible job of training Iraqi solders. Asked about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, 19-year-old Spc. Michael Commisso says while he's proud to be a combat veteran, "I don't feel like I'm defending my country anymore."
Sometimes a little more coherence would be nice. Halfway through the movie Tucker celebrates his return home with a shot of his kitchen, then resumes Iraq footage without explanation. Radio broadcasts are used as a heavyhanded counterpoint for anti-war jabs. (A Donald Rumsfeld comment that "$87 billion is an honest summary" of the cost of the war is played as a soldier shows off Humvee armor made from scrap metal.)
An epilogue lists soldiers from the regiment, including Sgt. David McKeever of Buffalo, who were killed during the year the movie was in production.
At a time when Iraq war stories have moved off the front page, "Gunner Palace" offers vivid, unforgettable images of the sorry, messy business of war.