Gunner Palace (2004) Movie Review

“Gunner Palace” is a frank and at times profanity-laden look at the life of the 2/3 Field Artillery, which found itself occupying Uday Hussein’s bombed out palace after the end of major combat in the second Iraq War. Now tasked with patrolling a section of Baghdad that is also home to a volatile Mosque, “Gunner Palace” follows the day-to-day existence, gripes, patrols, failures and successes of the men (and woman) of the 2/3. Filled with catchy heavy rap beats and electric guitar riffs courtesy of some of the battalion’s young men, cameraman/co-director Michael Tucker guides his camera through the streets and nights of Baghdad, searching not for answers, but rather what it means to be a soldier in an occupied land.

For those concerned that “Gunner Palace” is a censored, propagandistic look at the war, they needn’t worry. A censored film wouldn’t show you a soldier sarcastically showcasing a humvee covered in Iraqi scrap metal that the soldiers welded on themselves because of a lack of adequate armor for the troops. Or the series of raids that the unit goes on, most of them ending with the soldiers battering down the doors of scared Iraqis, including a stubborn journalist and a single mother and her children. Later, a trusted unit interpreter is arrested for spying, the results of his subversive efforts totaling 3 murdered soldiers. Perhaps most telling of all, a look at the situation as it worsens day by day while the Army radio continually broadcasts optimistic “reports” about the war in the background.

“Gunner Palace” is also nowhere being as sensationalistic as it could have been; or at least, it’s almost tame in comparison to the parade of death and violence your local news continually shows about the Iraq situation, ignoring everything else in favor of that old news motto, “If it bleeds, it leads”. There are no gratuitous bloodletting in “Gunner Palace”, no sights of maimed bodies, or even harsh combat. Why? Because in the months that Tucker was with the unit (over the course of a year) he was never present for the street battles or gunfights; or at least, these things never reached the 2/3 often enough to be captured on film. It really is as simple as that. As a result, the only conclusion one can reach is that, despite what the news media would have you believe, Iraq really isn’t one continued giant explosion or street-to-street firefights.

At its weakest, you can say that not much ever happens in “Gunner Palace”. Although there is always that feeling of imminent danger, Tucker’s camera is never present to capture any really harrowing experiences. This isn’t a movie, after all, and Tucker can’t be everywhere at once. Perhaps in an effort to insinuate more danger than their film actually contains, the filmmakers uses some techniques such as freeze frames, that gives the false impression something bad will happen to a person who has just been interviewed or talked about. The fact that things rarely happens to any of the soldiers or Iraqi civilians that work with the Americans makes the film’s constant freeze framing, especially in the second half, entirely superfluous and a little misleading.
Forgiving “Gunner Palace” its many faux filmmaking techniques, it’s a very honest and real look at what an average American soldier has to endure each day in Iraq. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that these men aren’t tailored for cameras, and that’s another reason to believe “Gunner Palace” is as candid as they come. These soldiers, some just out of high school, oftentimes curses at will, and the younger soldiers have little concept of subtlety or tact, and in some cases show very poor decision making skills. But you don’t expect any less from human beings. They are soldiers, yes, but human beings first.

To its credit, the film never makes any one soldier its main focus, a good choice because the soldiers are very individualized, with such drastic and differing views of the war. Instead, the film constantly shifts perspectives, from the young soldier whose boring job is to filter out intelligence in the safety of the palace, to a veteran soldier tasked with training the Iraqi military, but who gripes that they’re just in it for the money, and will never be able to safeguard the country. (And true to the soldier’s words, there are more than a few cases of Iraqi soldiers fleeing firefights.) We also see the hardened commander who knows what to say, but one look in his eyes and you know he means every word of it.

Although it doesn’t do everything well, and real-life doesn’t equal convenience for filmmaker Michael Tucker to be magically transported to the action, “Gunner Palace” is definitely worth a look for those who doesn’t quite understand what the soldiers are going through half a world away. Politics rarely enters into the picture, and if the film takes any positions at all, it’s to show you the war from a grunt’s perspective. This isn’t a movie made by Michael Moore, so all you enraged Bush haters needn’t bother; it’s also not a movie made by Rush Limbaugh, so all you Bush sycophants also needn’t bother. For everyone else, especially those of us who refuse to let two mega political parties dominated by special interests tell us how to think, “Gunner Palace” is a very real look at what’s really happening Over There.

Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker (director)

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