The current political climate in this country is one of conflict and disagreement. The media and politicians seem righteously committed to drawing ideological battle lines between liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states, “patriots” and “collaborators.” Every opinion is suspect and even the most straightforward news story is dissected for potential bias. Given all this, it’s hard not to pick a side when discussing the U.S. occupation in Iraq.
Watching Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s documentary, Gunner Palace, one can’t help but be impressed by the nonpartisan restraint they display. By focusing on the experiences of individual soldiers — something the administration tends to avoid, fearful of losing support for the war — the filmmakers eschew political arguments to give us a view of combat that is unromantic and frighteningly real.
Between June 2003 and February 2004 (not long after “major combat” operations had been declared over), Tucker followed the Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery Unit; 400 soldiers trained to fight tank battles now reduced to heavily armed cops. Cobbling together footage shot during four visits to Iraq, the filmmakers offer up surprisingly personal interludes, giving the “gunners” a voice unfiltered by politicians and pundits.
Operating out of Uday Hussein’s bombed-out pleasure palace (thus the title), the troops patrol the streets of Baghdad’s Adhamiya district (a hotbed of insurgency), investigate bomb scares and stage harrowing raids on the homes of suspected bombmakers who, more often than not, turned out to be 60-year-old Saddam loyalists. Long stretches of downtime boredom are punctuated by moments of sudden danger. Knowing that a random encounter with a discarded plastic bag could result in an explosive death, the littered and bustling streets of Baghdad take on an atmosphere of dread.
With its fly-on-the-wall approach and cast of irreverent characters, the documentary plays a bit like The Real World: Baghdad. There are wisecracking jokers and jaded hip-hop poets and Midwestern farm boys; all of whom seem baffled by the animosity and fear the Iraqis show toward their liberators.
Private moments with these young men and women reveal that they are all proud of their country yet harbor deeply conflicted feelings about their mission. Though George Bush’s name never comes up, the soldiers deliver sharp-eyed commentary about their situation. Doubts over why they are in Iraq and the administration’s commitment to their safety are frequently expressed in conversation, sarcastic asides and even rap lyrics.
If there is an agenda behind Gunner Palace, it is to make clear that the younger and less fortunate members of our society fight our wars for us. The brave soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit mostly come from rural backwaters and low-income suburbs — or as Tucker describes it, “an atlas of the forgotten America” — where joining the military is their best career option. Despite this, the soldiers approach their mostly thankless mission with good humor and endless resourcefulness.
Whatever your views are on the war, Gunner Palace is unlikely to change your mind. Though the situation in Iraq may seem disastrous to some, this film makes clear that the good will and commitment to sacrifice of those who serve should never be doubted. It is important to remember this when rich politicians and millionaire commentators make excuses for poor planning, lack of necessary equipment or slashed veteran benefits.
Though far too disjointed and unfocused to be a great film, Gunner Palace is an important film. By providing an unvarnished depiction of our soldiers in Iraq, it succeeds in revealing the daily realities of war, a story the mass media has failed miserably to tell.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].