directed by Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker
by Walter Chaw Some of the footage is interesting and some of the quotes are poignant, but Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary Gunner Palace is hamstrung by embarrassingly trite narration and a lack of any sort of unifying theme in its editing. The film follows the United States 2/3 Field Artillery group--"Gunners"--as they take up residence in Uday Hussein's palace of earthly delights (redubbing the mansion "Gunner Palace" in the grunts' rough vernacular) in a bombed-out Baghdad during the months following U.S. occupation. More old ladies and shell-shocked children than hard-bitten insurgents are terrorized over the course of Gunner Palace, but what should have been an unbearable look at life under wartime and the constant threat of betrayal or ambush opens with a tone-setting Tucker voiceover that, with the callous defensiveness of a perspective-challenged, embittered vet, derides the audience for liking reality television like "Survivor". "Survive this," he says, 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.
Tucker isn't a journalist or a documentarian--in the tradition of Born Into Brothels, he's an avatar and a mouthpiece, and his Semper Fi activism is tedious and ill-fitting. Halfway through Gunner Palace, he films himself pouring a cup of coffee in his home in Washington state, going on about his experiences as he roots through the fridge and wanders into his office. Tell me the truth, now: who the fuck wants to see Michael Tucker's kitchen and workspace? It's a ridiculous way to throw his hands up to the heavens at the capriciousness of fate and the arbitrary winds of war--to take a few more badly-aimed shots at the rapidly-cooling audience for being passive observers instead of, what, active observers? Soon, Tucker is back in Baghdad, riding around filming the soldiers doing free-form raps about how much it sucks to be shot at everyday by people who don't appreciate their presence in their country and, apparently poignantly, about how nobody back home can appreciate how much it sucks.
When Gunner Palace works, it works because of the blithe innocence of the disadvantaged American soldier. They're kids, but more than that, they're kids from poor backgrounds with limited educations and limited possibility for advancement in the society that they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend. The social caste in the United States is the subtext of the piece: When the soldiers try to help out an Iraqi street youth goofed-up on glue, we feel like it's with the same sort of recognition that fuels their disdain of an Iraqi journalist's desire for the right to speak (and due process) once his home is raided for bomb-making equipment that isn't there. The repeated promise that evildoers, no matter how speciously fingered, are going to be sent to Abu Ghraib, rings with a different kind of chill now. The story gleefully recounted of how a young MP reduced a pair of big men to tears with threats that they were going to be shipped out to Guantanamo Bay suggests there are more stories of torture in the name of justice yet to be uncovered.
Two moments stand out. The first comes after we've heard through the Armed Forces Radio reports Tucker and Epperlein use as ironic (?) counterpoint to their slapdash footage that George Jr. has asked Congress for 87 billion dollars to continue the war "against terrorism": soldiers proceed to show off the "87 billion dollar" armour that's equipped on their humvee, i.e., scrap metal they've scavenged and soldered onto the sides of their vehicle so that the inevitable bomb shrapnel will be slowed enough to lodge in their bodies instead of slicing right through. (The second highlight is a quote from a soldier that he can no longer conceive of any good ever coming through the murder of another man in armed conflict.) The rest of the film is guys diving in Uday's swimming pool, playing electric guitar, eating Burger King, and counting the days until they get to go home. Not exactly a revelation, in Tucker's and Epperlein's hands it becomes something even less. Gunner Palace is a little like The September Tapes: lots of fury, very little smarts--it's almost as dangerous, then, as the kid from Monument, Colorado who confesses that he once accidentally discharged his weapon into a building; if anybody was in there, the kid says, they would have been really unhappy. Gunner Palace shoots off a lot in a lot of different directions--and if anybody's in the audience, they're going to be really unhappy. Originally published: March 9, 2005.