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No Film at 11

Gunner Palace shows what the news doesn't.

Everyone with a TV remembers President Bush in the flight suit, landing on that aircraft carrier, standing in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner and triumphantly declaring that major combat operations in Iraq were over. Two years on, many feel like asking what, exactly, he meant by that.

Gunner Palace makes no bones about it. Opening with footage taken in Iraq on September 5, 2003, the film informs us through subtitles that what we're seeing is, according to Bush's declaration, "minor combat." To the U.S. soldiers, it makes little difference: They're still being shot at, and pinpointing the enemy is a pain and a half. Trained to fight a Russian advance during the Cold War, conditioned to become men who "live to blow stuff up," the soldiers now find themselves having to become a combination of social worker, peacekeeper and politician in addition to being able to shoot back when shot at. Having dismantled a country, they now find themselves having to put it back together, which strikes most of them as a tad incongruous.

Documentarian Michael Tucker made two trips to Baghdad, where he stayed with the troops in a bombed-out former residence of Uday Hussein's that had been converted into a barracks and renamed Gunner Palace. Complete with three putting greens, a fishing pond, a large swimming pool and the highest ceilings most of the military men had ever seen in their lives, it's described by one man as "an adult's paradise," although alcohol is banned and sex is only hinted at in the mildest of ways (a coed dance at a pool party).

As we tag along vicariously with Tucker on midnight raids on suspected terrorist households, watch soldiers look after abandoned war orphans, see them train Iraqi civil-defense forces and hold up traffic while they check for explosive devices, you may wonder: Why don't we see this kind of thing on the news every night? Undoubtedly, military censorship comes into play, but probably more so, it's the prevailing notion that talking-head shoutfests stacked with pundits bring in the ratings, while actual field reporting costs more money.

Indeed, seeing biased nutcases on both sides of a given issue yell at each other is entertainment, but it'll be an interesting world if we have to start depending on movies for the real story. Donald Rumsfeld recently got into hot water when a soldier questioned him about having to armor vehicles with scrap metal; Tucker's footage proves that this was an issue two years ago, as one soldier demonstrates (much to the amusement of his colleagues) how the new panels he culled from a junk heap will keep the shrapnel in your body rather than having it blow clean through.

In a notable sign of the times, virtually all of the soldiers seem to enjoy freestyle rapping as a means of blowing off steam. The one who favors the more traditional electric guitar is the film's most prominent character, Pfc. Stuart Wilf, first introduced wearing a T-shirt that reads "My ass stinks like shit" and later seen experimenting with new flavors of macaroni and cheese, putting a mop on his head to impersonate a Sunni cleric, and bonding with an elderly Iraqi dubbed "Basil."

"We both want to fuck," explains Basil.

"Not each other!" clarifies Wilf, who will later suggest, half jokingly, that his military service might qualify him to be president someday.

Wilf's an entertaining guy, so it's no surprise that Tucker's camera is drawn to him. It is a narrative weakness of the film, however, that none of the other characters comes through quite as well; when a major death happens off screen late in the game, we don't feel it, because the deceased hasn't been on camera much. Comrades tell Tucker that they know he had an affinity for the late soldier -- so why so little background on him? Yes, every death counts, and it's unfair to judge individual casualties as though they were characters in a movie, but the loss can only be considered intellectually if nothing visceral has been provided.

What may surprise many viewers -- especially those with no direct connection to the military -- is the degree to which the soldiers seem anti-war by the movie's end. Several go on record saying, more or less, that there is nothing that can be gained by taking any human life. Others merely wonder why they spent so much time destroying a country that they now have to rebuild, and what will define victory. Though specific left/right political sides aren't taken, Rumsfeld's name eventually starts to evoke derision every time it comes up.

Doesn't seem like we have any good answers for them. But we could start by paying attention to their stories.

 
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