"I don't feel like I'm defending our country, and that kinda sucks," shrugs a member of the U.S. Army 2/3 Field Artillery, a.k.a. Gunners, from his post in Baghdad last winter, while also acknowledging he's committed to his job. That mixture of pride, confusion and ambivalence runs deep through Gunner Palace, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's verité documentary that snapshots two months in the ever-shifting war in Iraq.
In November 2003, Tucker bunked down with the Gunners at their bizarre improvised barracks -- the bombed-out Baghdad pleasure palace of Saddam Hussein's playboy son Uday. Ostensibly, their job is to patrol the Sunni-dominated Adhamiya neighborhood, while rooting out suspected bad guys and weapons caches. But they also double as community facilitators, baby-sitters and performers of 101 small tasks that fall to occupying forces.
What Tucker presents is a collection of disconnected vignettes intended to mimic the day-to-day haphazardness of life in Iraq: one night under fire, the next night bored and playing video games. This scattershot strategy precludes emotional involvement in the traditional sense; we don't, for example, get to know and follow a couple soldiers through a narrative arc to a life-changing moment (though one suspects Tucker could have cut together such a film).
Instead, Gunner Palace remains something of a blank slate, which will ultimately reveal what the viewer wants to see. In its rawness -- at times a little dull -- the film achieves what is in short supply: challenging images from Iraq without editorializing that will simultaneously annoy and validate any faction, be it pro-war, pro-soldier, anti-war or some muddled combination thereof.
Most of the soldiers featured are fresh out of high school, and their comments often reflect their immaturity, though they're surprisingly on-point when they suspect folks back home barely consider them beyond a vicarious moment during the nightly news. Several are freestyle rappers and their lyrics are heavily punctuated with violence, anger, fear and resignation: "Cuz for y'all this is just a show / but we live in this movie."
While Gunner traffics in a ripped-from-today's-headlines aspect of a war we're still in, I boggled at how much significant had happened in the one year since Tucker stopped filming: the brinkmanship with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the coalition handover, the insurgency's skyrocketing loss of life and the increasing isolation of U.S. troops from the place and people they're guarding.
In the second segment, shot in February 2004, life for the Gunners is getting worse. Several of the company have been killed, the insurgency is gaining steam, and trust has broken down between the men and Iraqis outside their gates. Gallows humor prevails: The soldiers fall to the ground laughing as one details the ineffectiveness of their Humvee's hillbilly armor. Soon, that wouldn't be funny anymore.