The Difficulties of Representing War

I just came across Walter Chaw’s very critical review of Gunner Palace, which I found on the cool new film blog, Cinemonster. My initial review was certainly more positive, but I do share some of their reservations about the film, specifically regarding Tucker’s voice-over. I do think the film’s lack of a clear political message, implied in what Chaw describes as “the lack of a unifying theme” can be read in a more positive light as an implicit criticism of the war’s lack of a clear focus.

Also, based on my experience at a screening attended by the director and one of the soldiers in the unit portrayed in the film, I don’t think Tucker’s point is to criticize opponents of the war, as Chaw suggests. Tucker’s status as a veteran certainly informs the lens through which he sees the soldiers, but to suggest that Tucker is “spitting like a bona fide jarhead in the face of all us lefty wimps who’ve made the mistake of trying to learn something without getting shot at” seems to deny the very purpose of the documentary Tucker and Epperlein have made. In fact, I think it would be reasonable to argue that the film is equally critical of armchair hawks who have “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers on the back of their cars without any real understanding of what the military is doing, and while the representation issue (“we can’t really know what the soldiers experience”) may be obvious, I do think it’s worth revisiting.

I actually didn’t intend to write another blog entry “defending” the film or my original review of it, but now that the film has achieved “must-see” status, I can’t resist continuing the conversation and testing my initial reading of it. It does bother me that the film didn’t take a slightly more explicit anti-war stance, and I’m still concerned that the film failed to represent any sense of how the Iraqi perceived the war, but there are still some powerful moments in the film that make it well worth seeing (if only so that you can complain about it later).


  1. AA Said,

    March 23, 2005 @ 10:07 pm

    Thanks for the link! Have you read A.O. Scott’s review? (Probably, I imagine.) He makes a somewhat similar connection between the lack of focus/unruly form and the content as you. By no means am I longing wistfully for linearity — but I really think a parallel between structural/ideological chaos and the chaos of what’s being represented (the soldiers’ experiences, or the war itself) can only take us so far… at some point, you cross a line, and the movie is just messy.

    Your post (and the part of the Chaw review you highlighted) made me think about the comment by one of the soldiers at the end of the film (“For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.”), which Tucker and Epperlein seem to appropriate as a manifesto of the film on their website. The problem is the comment has an almost deadening finality to it — instead of telling the underrepresented story of the soldiers in Iraq, the film (as represented by that comment) kind of suggests such story-telling is ultimately impossible, and even an object of scorn — “just a show.” That’s the impression I was left with after the film — a sort of disdain for an uncomprehending audience who can never know What It’s Really Like. Maybe that effect is unintentional, but it starts from the very first words of the film, which seem to assume we’re all apathetic reality-tv-watching couch potatos (“Survive this.”) Not really fair, considering those completely oblivious tv-watchers would never make it out to see Gunner Palace in the first place…

    Or maybe it is fair, since I’m sitting here blogging about movies instead of out on the streets petitioning the government to, what, end the war now? I don’t know… what does the film want from us? I’m still not sure.

  2. AA Said,

    March 23, 2005 @ 10:21 pm

    (P.S. I like the interesting comparisons you’re making b/w this and Apocalypse Now –)

  3. Chuck Said,

    March 23, 2005 @ 11:48 pm

    I think I’d glanced at Scott’s review, and it’s a little disorienting to see that my reading of the film is so close to his. I didn’t mean to imply that you were seeking a linear narrative, and you’re right to note that such a “messy” reading can only take us so far. Part of what fascinates me is that representational limit and how that might enter into conversations about (representing) the war. And given my political commitments, I would have like this documentary to have been less ambiguous.

    I think you’re right about the “disdain” the documentary seems to have for its audience, and you’re right to note that the film doesn’t offer any clear response, though the filmmakers’ efforts to encourage audiences to correspond with soldiers does offer one answer to that question. I’m writing a conference paper about this film because it has stirred up so many questions for me about the politics of representation.

    The Apocalypse Now vibe is really strong for me (as my original review suggests). In a weird sort of way, I was reminded of Francis Coppola’s famous line when speaking of his film, “This is Vietnam.” But here, we have a doc that seems to be saying “This is Iraq, but not really….”

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