During the first 15 minutes of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s “Gunner Palace,” I thought I was watching a brilliant and irreverent documentary that showcased the follies of postwar U.S. operations in Iraq. The film showed scenes of soldiers floating in swimming pools drinking Snapple, soldiers hauling a glue-sniffing kid off the streets, and soldiers stopping traffic to investigate a plastic bag. The shots were set to pompous Sousa marches and awkward raps about Baghdad. Best of all was Tucker’s pretentious narration: In a voice that was a dead-ringer for Captain Willard of “Apocalypse Now,” he rattled off cheesy commentary in a voice dripping with a cowboy’s ruggedness. “Most of us don’t see this on TV anymore,” Tucker said, practically spitting tobacco at our feet. Smart, scathing and sardonic, I thought.
Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that the film’s omnipresent voice-over, which desperately tries to make “Palace” into a machismo war drama, isn’t supposed to be ironic. If only Tucker and Epperlein allowed their footage to speak for itself, their documentary would be much less muddled, and much more effective.
The film documents a few months in the lives of the 2/3 Field Artillery, a group of gunners living in a bombed out palace Saddam Hussein built for his sons. Tucker couches the experience as a daily struggle in a world of constant threat and danger. From what he says during the film, it is apparent that he wants his project to be a trench-survival tale of overlooked heroism. But the footage the filmmakers present is simply not enough to fulfill their lofty goals.
This disparity is most apparent in a scene in which the soldiers drive back to the palace one night, and are suddenly gripped by a sense of unease. “It looks OK to me, but the soldiers see something they don’t like,” Tucker announces ominously. And indeed, something sinister lurks within: a rat.
Later, Tucker interviews a young solider, asking: “What do you like about being here?” The soldier fumbles around, mentioning beautiful scenery, seeing the world, etc. An awkward pause ensues. “I’ve got a gun,” the soldier announces with pride. Tucker asks him if he’s ever fired it. “Once,” he replies. “Not on purpose.” Though the scene seems to be laden with mockery, different turns later in the film — where the filmmakers honor the soldiers’ bravery — leaves one totally unsure of the film’s message. And that ambiguity is not an asset.
And so it goes throughout the film, where the American armed forces look worse and worse — yet Tucker’s narration confusingly portrays them in a shining light. The troops stop by Baathist riots and pick up T-shirts. They raid a building and arrest two “hard-core bomb-makers,” then later the building is found to have no traces of bomb-building materials. But their lack of success doesn’t stop the soldiers from holding a post-raid party in Gunner Palace, where they play golf on a newly constructed putting green and lounge in a large pool. They play video games, surf the net and write songs like “No-Beer Blues.”
Once or twice, the soldiers find a suspicious piece of trash on the road that could be an improvised explosive device. But empty plastic bags are pretty much the only action the 2/3 Field Artillery sees. Nonetheless, Tucker still feels justified in drawling, “I feel lucky. Real lucky,” when the vehicle he rides in passes by one such garbage bag safely. There is obviously very real danger for soldiers in Iraq; troops die there every day — and, as Tucker says, it’s often undocumented by the mainstream press, especially cable news channels. But his shameless melodrama only discredits the perils that the soldiers face, making them appear ridiculous as he attempts get the audience’s adrenaline rushing.
Yet the film contains a lot of material that is fascinating, and if Tucker had removed himself from the film long enough to properly examine it, the documentary could have been truly great. The moral and political ambiguity of the war in Iraq has left many troops unsure of their role in the country — where they sometimes find themselves conducting raids on alleged terrorists, sometimes acting as truant officers. “I don’t feel like I’m defending my country anymore,” one soldier says with regret — a sentiment that remains unexplored.
The soldiers’ interactions with the local people are also fascinating. Some Iraqis throw stones at them, while others cheer them on. The Iraqis that work with the soldiers always seem slightly ill at ease. They try to adapt themselves to the brash manners of the Americans, but they laugh at jokes just a few seconds too late, never sure if the soldiers’ humor is at their expense. But the subtleties of these relationships are buried, as the filmmakers charge forward in their quest to make the film into something it is not.
But as it stands, moral complexity takes a backseat to self-indulgence. “For y’all it’s just a show, but we livin’ this movie,” one soldier gripes. To emphasize this point, Tucker shows footage of his own return home, highlighting the difference between his life of ease and luxury, and the hardship endured by the soldiers in Iraq. But when all he shows of wrenching hardship is soldiers living in a pleasure palace with a swimming pool and putting greens, Burger King Whoppers and electric guitars, war doesn’t seem like such hell.