My coworkers and I have had many interesting, involved, and impassioned debates concerning the conflict in Iraq, with a lot of them revolving around the wisdom of our government getting involved (or lack thereof). We all have our own take on the issue, and we throw out facts and figures that we glean from the newspaper, CNN and Fox News, etc.
One of the more sobering conversations I had about the war took place over lunch one day, when one of my co-workers, whose husband is actually serving in Iraq, revealed that he spent part of his leave buying supplies for his unit — supplies that were perfectly ordinary and necessary to do their job — at Radio Shack with his own money.
Regardless of your opinions of the war, something about that notion — that U.S. soldiers have been thrust into a conflict, and then have to pay for part of it with their own dime — should rub you the wrong way. Those of us halfway around the world, safe and warm in our homes and 9‑to‑5 jobs, can make all of the debates we want, for or against. But I can only imagine how hollow those statements ring when you’re being pelted with rocks, mortar rounds are landing within spitting distance, and all that’s between you and a homemade landmine is some scrap metal that you found in an Iraqi junkyard.
Gunner Palace takes this very approach. Filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker present a perspective on the war that is far removed from the talking heads, one that is right from the eyes of the troops. In this case, the troops are members of 2/3 Field Artillery (aka the “Gunners”) who patrol the streets of Baghdad and live in a bombed out palace that one belonged to Saddam Hussein.
That incongruity is apparent within the opening seconds. One minute, the troops are driving through Baghdad’s backstreets, making raids on suspected insurgency cells. The next, they’re relaxing in a garish suite originally built for Saddam’s sons, chilling out by the pool, or shooting a few rounds of golf on the palatial estate. It’s a fairly absurd situation, and one can’t help but think of a old M*A*S*H episodes — except that this is real.
Tucker occasionally asks offscreen questions, but most of the time, he just records what the troops are doing, their reactions, etc. Many of the troops interviews, like Private Wilf, come from small towns and have little to no education. For them, the army is one of the few real prospects that they have. However, as someone points out early in the movie, these soldiers are “Field Artillery.” They’ve been trained to bring out the really big guns and blow really big stuff up — poor skills to have when it comes to conducting traffic, arresting unruly protesters, and moving through cramped alleys.
Most of the soldiers interviewed react to their situation with — what else? — humor. Sometimes it’s brash and crass as anything. And yet, behind their humor lies a deep cynicism about their role in Iraq. Does the war make any sense? Should they even be there? Will what they do make any difference once they’ve gone? One soldier expresses such doubts even as he trains the Iraqi army. And worst of all, does anyone back home even care?
Time and again, soldiers comment on how folks in America are only interested if someone gets shot, or something really big happens (such as the capture of Hussein, which takes place shortly after this film was made). They don’t care about the day-to-day lives of the soldiers and the Iraqis, the mundane duties that still fraught with great danger.
I’m sure that really partisan folks might find something to bicker about. Liberals will probably complain that the filmmakers are too light on the war effort, and don’t probe deeply enough into the “real” issues. Conservatives will probably whine about the film painting the military in a bad light. I have a feeling that the soldiers in Iraq would probably scoff at such remarks. War is never that simple, is never a Right vs. Left affair, never a matter of black and white. Gunner Palace is oftentimes a vivid reminder of that.
It’s not a perfect documentary by any means, though. For starters, Tucker’s narration often distracts from the film. The editing gets a little sloppy at times and the various soldiers often get jumbled together, such that it can be a little difficult to pick up where their individual stories continue. And halfway through the film, Tucker films his return to the States and discusses his settling back into real life, presumably to provide a contrast to what the soldiers are still going through. However, it feels awkwardly placed, especially when we’re back in Iraq 5 minutes later, as if nothing had happened.
Such flaws prevent the documentary from hitting home as hard as it could. But the raw materials are there, and the soldier’s plight and situation still comes through loud and clear.
A little bit of trivia: this film’s rating was reduced from an “R” to a “PG-13,” despite the fact that words like “fuck” are all over the place. This is one of those rare times when I agree with an MPAA decision like this. There’s nothing at all glamorous or gratuitous about the use of such language — it’s simply there, captured by the camera, like every other ordinary detail of the soldiers’ lives.