January 30, 2006
The longer that the United States is mired in the occupation of Iraq the more the situation there draws the inevitable comparisons to the Vietnam War. Our troops are trying to maintain a tenuous peace but are having a tough time against insurgents that are impossible to tell apart from the average citizen. Every week the body count rises on both sides: soldiers and civilians. The nightly news provides little insight into what it is really like over there as they offer easily digestible soundbites. Gunner Palace (2004) attempts show the reality of the situation for U.S. soldiers in Iraq with the focus on the 2/3 Field Artillery a.k.a. “The Gunners” who occupy Uday Hussein’s now bombed out palatial estate (renamed Gunner Palace by the U.S. troops) in one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad.
Filmmaker Michael Tucker lived with these guys for two months in an attempt to delve deeper than what we see on CNN and provide a snapshot of life for the average soldier as told by them. Right from the get-go the documentary exposes the propaganda that the U.S. government dishes out on a daily basis. Several months after the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Donald Rumsfeld told the people of Baghdad that their city was “bustling with commerce.” Cut to the reality: deserted city streets with civilians armed with assault rifles running from building to building.
We get a tour of Gunner Palace which features stunning architecture despite all the rubble and destruction incurred from the war. As one soldier puts it, “We dropped a bomb on it, now we party in it.” The compound’s pool works and the soldiers are shown enjoying themselves in it. They’ve even created a driving range and three putting greens with soldiers using its fishing pond. It’s an attempt offer a brief respite from the danger they face every day but the sounds of mortar shells going off occasionally in the background is a constant reminder of where they are.
The documentary points out that these soldiers are trained for intense combat but have now become police officers and social workers. We see them playing with small children and one soldier even holds a tiny, emaciated baby abandoned by its parents. Mostly, we follow the Gunners on nightly raids of suspected bomb builders and alleged terrorists often with little or no evidence to be found. Yet, men are arrested and led off to prison with little explanation. These seemingly pointless raids act as a metaphor for the faulty reasoning for going into Iraq in the first place: the search for weapons of mass destruction. All we see is a lot of force used with very little results.
Gunner Palace constantly reinforces that a soldier’s greatest fear is finding an improvised explosive device (IED), a nondescript bag, pile of debris, etc. that could explode if disturbed. They never know if one of these packages is a bomb or not which creates a lot of tense moments. It doesn’t help that the troops are ill-equipped. One soldier shows the additional plates of armour on a thinly-armoured Humvee and points out that it will now allow deadly enemy shrapnel to stick in someone’s body instead of going clean through it. His comrades laugh at his comments but it has a real ring of honesty to it.
A lot of the soldiers come from small towns with few options: community college or enlist in the armed forces and see the world. Gunner Palace puts names and personalities to the faces that we see on the news. This documentary provides a fascinating portrait of these guys doing the best that they can in a dangerous situation. Most of these soldiers just want to serve their country the best that they can and come home alive. As one soldier puts it, “’Cos for y’all this is just a show but we live in this movie.” Some of them buy into what the President and his party are selling and some don’t. Tucker’s doc doesn’t take sides one way or the other, instead opting to just observe what these soldiers do and letting the audience make up their own mind. Once these troops finish their mission our disposable, soundbite culture will forget these men. Gunner Palace makes sure that a small snapshot of what it was like over there is preserved forever and therefore making this documentary indispensable.
There are 17 additional scenes totaling 28 minutes. Mostly, it consists of interview soundbites with soldiers who didn’t get much or any screen time in the documentary.
“Gunner Freestyles” features three of the songs written and performed by soldiers from the movie in their entirety.
Finally, there is a trailer.
It would have been nice if Tucker had done an audio commentary and provided some insight into the origins of his documentary, what motivated him to make it and how he got the kind of access that he did.