Gunner Palace

During a brief statement before tonight’s screening of Gunner Palace (IMDB), filmmaker Michael Tucker claimed that one of his goals in making the film was to avoid being overtly political, to “leave politics out of the film.” While I am inevitably suspicious of such claims of political neutrality, I found watching Gunner Palace to be an incredibly valuable experience, but watching it with an audience that included the filmmaker was utterly compelling and sometimes quite troubling (I’ll try to explain why in a few minutes). Tucker has also been promoting the film by conducting screenings near military bases in such cities as Columbus, Georgia, indirectly communicating that he believes soldiers and veterans to be one of his most important audiences, and that audience captured for me in vivid detail some major questions about the politics of representation.

The film itself is an incredible achievement, immersing the spectator in the everyday life of a group of soldiers stationed in one of Uday Hussein’s palaces. Tucker vividly portrays the absurdity of the soldiers living in the palace as soldiers relax by the palace swimming pool, oblivious to the sounds of war in the distance. The artificial grandeur, augmented by Uday’s garish tatses, also provides some bitter humor. Other moments in the film do convey that Tucker is far from politically neutral. During one scene a soldier sarcastically displays the Humvee armor his unit bought off an Iraqi junk dealer, his comrades actually rolling on the ground laughing at the dark humor. A follow-up voice-over of Donald Rumsfeld pledging to increase the military budget doesn’t hide Tucker’s disdain for people who support the military in their words but not necessarily in their actions.

But Gunner Palace is at its best during two distinct, but recrrent, elements. First, Tucker carries his handheld camera during several of the soldiers’ missions into Baghdad. The jostling camera, the sudden movements in the streets, and the long takes without a cut suggest that anything could happen. Bags of garbage in the street suddenly appear threateneing because they might hide an improvised explosive device (or IED). Men and women who seemed helpful yesterday are now conspiring against the soldiers. The film’s lack of a clear narrative–the plot is chronological, but presents no specific mission or goal–only adds to the sense that it’s not entirely clear why the soldiers are there or what they can do to make things better.

Second, Tucker allows the soldiers to speak for themselves, and for the most part we hear from low-level soldiers, not the officers who have been trained in military PR-speak to provide the answers we want to hear. These are regular folks who just want to go home and want to try to portray something about their everyday lives, as impossible as that goal might be. The soldiers who speak are poets, free-style rappers, and class clowns. Although they constantly try to describe their experiences, they are all acutely aware of the fact that we’re not getting their stories on the six-o’clock news. While I can talk about the politics of representation, the difficulty of conveying one’s experience, these soldiers are living it. As one soldier notes, “After the movie’s over, you’ll get your popcorn out of the microwave, and you’ll forget about me.” And, of course, to some extent he’s right. Another adds, “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.”

As Tucker himself notes, the film inevitably focused on these issues of representation and mediation. He notes

The longer I stayed, the more it became their movie—one laced with cinematic déjà vu. At times, it didn’t feel like I was shooting a documentary, rather a war movie that we have all seen a dozen times. For the older officers and NCOs it was M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket—you could see it in the way they rode in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door—helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War.

Of course the clearest referent was Apocalypse, Now, especially during one scene in which the soldiers play “Flight of the Valkyres” while on a mission. This comparison is also echoed through the director’s voice-over, which I found unnecessarily dramatic.

And this comparison to Apocalypse Now is where I struggled most with my reaction to the film. I couldn’t quite shake the idea that Tucker’s film–far from being politically neutral–was actually politically ambivalent in Frank Tomasulo’s useful phrase. I don’t have Tomasulo’s essay handy, but in my vague recollection, I’m taking Tomasulo’s description of Apocalypse to mean that the film yields a multitude of political readings, both pro and anti-war, a description that might apply to Gunner Palace as well. One audience member commented that he couldn’t imagine the Pentagon being offended by anything in the film, perhaps wilfully ignoring the critique of Rumsfeld, but noticing the film’s sympathy with the grunt soldiers. An Iraq War veteran in the audience read the film as anti-war because it failed to show the “positive effects” of the war, a position challenged by an officer who had been stationed in Gunner Palace and joined Tucker at tonight’s screening. Another audience member had the rather troubling response that the number of dead and wounded in Iraq didn’t compare to the numbers in previous wars, prompting an immediate emotional response from several veterans in the audience. Such reactions, in my reading, suggest that the film is far from neutral in its content. It’s difficult not to identify with the soldiers, especially given the use of continuity and POV editing that aligns our gaze with that of the soldier. And while Tucker is careful to present the confusion and disorientation any war will create, we don’t ever see things from the perspective of Iraqi citizens even though many of the soldiers clearly sympathize with them. After writing this review, I’m more convinced than before that I’ve just seen an incredibly complex, nuanced, challenging film. I’m not entirely sure I’ve come to any conclusion about it, but I also can’t recommend this film enough. It may be the most thoughtful and thought-provoking film I’ve seen to come out of the Iraq War so far.

Update: Blackfive’s review seems to support my claim that Gunner Palace is “politically ambivalent.” It’s also worth noting that the MPAA has seen fit to give Gunner Palace an R rating, a ruling which Palm Pictures is currently appealing. I’d imgine this appeal will likely fail, in part because of the film’s complicated politics, which is a shame because GP should be required viewing for teenage boys and girls who may soon face a decision about whether or not to serve in the military.

Update II (2/24): David Ansen offers a similar reading of Gunner Palace, arguing that the film presents material that “will confirm and confound both right and left” (thanks to GreenCine for the link).

Update III (3/5): Also check out Cynthia Fuchs’ review of Gunner Palace, which makes the connection to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which seems crucial to my reading of the film via the mediated lens of Apocalypse Now.

5 Comments »

  1. Alan Jones Said,

    February 21, 2005 @ 10:22 pm

    There is an online petition asking the MPAA to change the rating to PG13. You can find it here:

    http://www.petitiononline.com/palace/petition.html

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 21, 2005 @ 11:14 pm

    Thanks for the link. I’m signing it now.

  3. sterling Said,

    March 8, 2005 @ 3:38 pm

    I am not a big fan of documentaries and I would not run out to see a film about war, but Gunner Palace was so much more. It created an avenue for me to get a littler closer to some real soldiers. The news lists the casualties in a faceless way.
    I cared about Wilf and the others, I wanted them to return home safely. I admire this effort and
    applaud Tucker and Epperlein for recording the story behind those headlines. The music also had an impact. Go see this film.

  4. l weed Said,

    May 2, 2005 @ 12:34 pm

    Gunning for redundancy
    Film Review: Gunner Palace
    By Will Scheibel – The Daily Iowan
    Published: Monday, May 2, 2005
    Article Tools: Page 1 of 1

    ** out of ****

    Here’s a film with a lot of talk but nothing especially relevant to say. Gunner Palace, a documentary by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, may have been worth a look had the likes of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Control Room (2004) come later, but now the film seems redundant – and also monotonous and repetitive.

    Tucker and Epperlein spent time with the 2/3 Field Artillery Division (a.k.a. “Gunners”) of the Army’s First Armored Division during visits to Iraq over the course of the last two years. They recorded the day-to-day routines of these young men, varying from the mundane (pool parties, horseplay) to the life-threatening (raids, eruptions of gunfire).

    The soldiers’ home base is the “Gunner Palace” to which the title refers: remains of Uday Hussein’s mansion that housed many a shindig in his time. During their stint in Baghdad, the soldiers turn the palace into an R&R haven for swimming, golfing, listening to rap, and partying down.

    These ragtag guys are mostly a foul-mouthed, inarticulate group of Neanderthals, and, at first, the film appeared to be nothing more than an American military-as-bully polemic. Ultimately, the film leans towards the antiwar direction but doesn’t offer the heavy-handed indictment we were led to expect.

    Instead, the film is more about the life of American soldiers, told from the inside, and their daily fight for survival. Still, anyone who has seen Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), or Full Metal Jacket (1987) – or even talked to a veteran – has probably heard all the points made in the 85-minute running time. We see how the men’s naïveté turns to cynicism and eventual disillusionment, with the obvious conclusion that, yes, war is hell.

    Tucker and Epperlein also portray the soldiers as confused boys lost and losing in an adult’s game, with no real concept of what they’re supposed to be doing in Iraq. Moreover, the troops in the film are oblivious to the history and culture of Baghdad, making it all the more difficult for them to understand their demonized “enemy.” If this stuff sounds cliché, that’s because we’ve heard the rhetoric a hundred times already (either from Michael Moore, or in the news, or even in classroom discussions).

    Maybe if the soldiers in Gunner Palace were a little more likable, it would be easier to stomach their story. But watching these dudes onscreen is like spending an hour and a half in your high-school locker room, as those asshole jocks swear and snap at each other with wet towels. The horror … the horror.

    E-mail DI film critic Will Scheibel at:

    leonard-scheibel@uiowa.edu

  5. SGT Teel Said,

    June 14, 2006 @ 12:14 am

    To whom it may concern:

    You need to take this show off the air. You are making all of us that have served over there look like idiots, much like these guys. The unit on here is out of their minds, and it is incredulous to see how they were operating… if you want to call it that. It makes me sick to watch. I am a veteran of all of our current conflicts, and have never came across a group similar to anything like this. I think you and Michael Moore have a gift for finding the worst group of soldiers to “represent” our armed forces in this war. This is a ridiculous show, and I will do everything that I can to get a formal complaint filed with whoever I can. If you were trying to tell the story in a positive light, then I’m sorry, but you failed. If you were trying to sway the support for our troops against them… then you’ve suceeded. I hope to hear back from you. In the meantime I’m going to exercise my rights.

    I’ll be in touch

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