In its two years of non-stop Iraq coverage, the media somehow overlooked what are becoming some of the Iraq war’s most pertinent images: those from the live-music parties at Uday Hussein’s palace pool. Here, soldiers flip off diving boards, play heavy metal guitar solos, and take a break from the horrors of war to enjoy the amenities of the bombed-out Al Azimaya Palace, where they now live.
Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s documentary Gunner Palace explores these everyday experiences through the eyes and voices of the 400 U.S. soldiers now inhabiting the palace. Tucker, who was embedded with these soldiers for two months in late 2003 and early 2004, records their labor and leisure with a camera the soldiers seem to trust. By the film’s end, the collage of parties, mosque searches, midnight raids, patrols, soldier confessions and raps has provided a portrait of America’s troops in Iraq more intimate than anything the mainstream media has seen from its window in the Palestine Hotel.
The film opens with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s 2003 radio announcement that major combat has ended. A young soldier laughs and drolly explains that the current war is minor combat, and we cut to one of Gunner Palace’s only images of machine guns being fired. Co-director Tucker’s camera then accompanies a Humvee full of soldiers on the film’s first mission: the soldiers must pick up a pubescent glue sniffer who is causing trouble outside of a local market.
Somewhere within Gunner Palace’s strange and engrossing footage, there might be an inept fluff piece, but it would take Brett Rattner and a sniper scope to find it. The footage is solid.
That is not to say that Epperlein and Tucker do not come close to sabotaging their mission. The incredible footage aside, Gunner Palace’s impact is diluted by muddled editing, undeveloped narratives and a sophomoric sense of irony.
The decision to repeatedly play Rumsfeld’s radio addresses for ironic effect is a poor one, and the film’s didactic juxtapositions often put Epperlein and Tucker’s voices above those of the soldiers’. Music from previous scenes carries over into nighttime raids, drowning out the tension inherent to the situation. When a soldier isn’t talking, Tucker’s redundant narration interrupts like a doleful Michael Moore reading a le Carré novel. “They come from places that read like an atlas of forgotten America,” he whispers in one of many elegiac passages.
When Tucker informs us that certain soldiers from the 2/3 Field Artillery, “The Gunners” of the film’s title, have died, the film’s spotty narrative sensibility leaves viewers wondering which if any of these soldiers had appeared in the film. To compensate, Tucker freeze-frames on a now-deceased soldier and cuts to an image of his own daughter lighting a sparkler outside of his apartment.
By the film’s end, it is clear that the real poets at work in Gunner Palace are the soldiers themselves. The strongest scenes are those where Tucker simply lets the camera roll while soldiers rap about their troubles. Their lyrics make an impact that Tucker’s overdub cannot diminish: “When we take a dip, we try to stick to the script, but when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit, that’s when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy, cause to y’all it’s just a show, but we live in this movie.”
Gunner Palace has its share of comics as well as rappers. One soldier wryly explains that the improvised armor on his Humvee “will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body rather than going through.”
Another of the film’s comedians, SPC Stuart Wilf, becomes one of its only stars. Whether the directors knew audiences would want to see characters develop or they simply had a lot of humorous footage of Wilf is open to debate, but his heavy metal guitar, honest commentary and propensity for dressing like an Imam (with a basketball net for gray hair) allow for at least one character with some flesh and blood on him.
Watching Gunner Palace is a frustrating experience because the filmmakers’ rushed editing and meandering cameras have constructed an average documentary out of extraordinary experiences. But like so many documentaries, Gunner Palace’s subject outweighs the directors’ haste in getting their film to print. The fact that Michael Tucker embedded himself with the gunners for two months and taped what he did is a gift to the documentary genre and to everyone interested in the actual situation in Iraq. He has made public an important piece of the Iraq puzzle… but left his own purple fingerprint on that piece.
What results is a PG-13 war film, which despite all its shortcomings still makes you think about war, culture, and fear in new ways. In the documentary form, a failed opportunity is not necessarily a failed film.