Directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
Gunner Palace, Michael Tucker’s documentary about a U.S. artillery company stationed in Baghdad, was originally assigned an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America because of its profanity. In a public appeal Tucker protested that the soldiers “deserve to be heard–without restriction–in the country that sent them to war.” The MPAA relented and lowered the rating to PG-13, which is good news, because every teenager in America should have a chance to see Gunner Palace, and so should their parents. After two clips were posted online last June, Tucker received a wave of positive e-mail from both supporters and protesters of the war. If the nation’s huge theater chains can work the movie into their usual diet of popcorn and sugar, it could be the next Fahrenheit 9/11, reigniting people’s sense of responsibility for the war and its outcome.
At the very least, it’s more honest and involved in its portraiture of American soldiers in Iraq than anything TV news of any political persuasion has given us. “I’m trying to make something that’s honest,” Tucker told an interviewer on the Web site Green Cine. “And soldiers have a huge hang-up about it. All they want is for someone to tell the truth. Not embellish it.”
Yet the movie’s full of embellishment, most of it willful and self-conscious, and that distinguishes it just as much. Tucker makes room in the narrative for the soldiers’ street raps and amateur guitar heroics, their clowning and posing; each soldier seems to dip into his own mental library of pop culture to organize the strange and terrifying things happening around him. Tucker makes a concerted effort to be impartial in his depiction of the war, but by colluding with his subjects in their little fantasies, he’s produced an even more layered and illuminating account of people stuck in a misguided war.
Born to a military family in Seattle, Tucker got his start as a cameraman for humanitarian groups in Vietnam and Cambodia. In September 2003 he began working as an independent embedded reporter in occupied Baghdad, assigned to the Second Battalion’s Third Field Artillery Regiment, First Armored Division. These 400 soldiers were lodged in Saddam Hussein’s bombed-out Al Azimiyah Palace, whose opulent rooms, pool, putting greens, stocked fishing pond, and other luxuries were formerly enjoyed by his son Uday. Tucker bunked with soldiers in a guardhouse and accompanied them on raids and patrols, some routine and some truly hair-raising. With six years in the army reserves, he seems to have been accepted as one of the guys, and though most of the officers stick to the measured compassion-speak of the new PR-minded military, the grunts are more trusting. “If the motherfucker has a weapon, then you shoot,” one soldier tells another on patrol. “If you think the motherfucker has a weapon, let me shoot.”
Tucker claims that as an embedded reporter he worked “without a minder or censor,” which may mean only that he didn’t require one. In practical terms he may not have had any more freedom than the network lions who showed up in their safari suits to chat with soldiers and then went home. But without a big media organization hovering over him, he’s at least willing and able to document his own parameters. During a nighttime raid the soldiers round up some Iraqi brothers suspected of planting homemade bombs around the city, and one of the brothers, a reporter by profession, starts trying to give Tucker a soliloquy as he kneels with his hands bound. “The reporter guy wants to talk,” the commander declares. “He goes outside the wall.” The man is taken away, and as Tucker shoots through the window of the brothers’ home, capturing an image of a woman shaking and crying, a voice-over reports that all the brothers were shipped off to Abu Ghraib.
After his first visit with the regiment, Tucker returned to Germany, where he lives with his wife and codirector, Petra Epperlein, and they took his footage to New York. As he explains in a press release, the movie executives who screened it had ideas of their own for the project: one suggested that he find more “Spielbergesque” characters (the Brooklyn wise guy, the Christian sharpshooter from Kentucky), and another advocated a coming-of-age story like Platoon’s. “If you can’t digest reality, you invent one,” Tucker concludes. When he returned to the palace in early 2004, he began to see that the soldiers were way ahead of him, “borrowing liberally from the cinema of war. For the older officers, M*A*S*H was the model. Their wives sent them aloha shirts to wear at the monthly poolside barbecues; they smoked Cohibas during briefings and gave their operations names straight out of Animal House. ‘Hide the Salami’ was a favorite–anything for morale. The older NCOs took a few pages from Apocalypse Now. Going on a raid, you could hear them humming Wagner as the engines revved and their Humvees left the gate.”
Tucker and Epperlein are as susceptible to this as anyone, and in one instance they let it get the better of them: when the soldiers set off for a daring nighttime raid on a private home, anticipating heavy resistance to their mission of seizing a respected sheikh, the filmmakers dub in Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” filtered to sound like it’s coming off the speakers of the armored vehicles. A postraid pool party immediately calls to mind Robert Duvall’s beach bash in Apocalypse Now, and Tucker’s terse voice-over reaches for the coolly outraged tone of Michael Herr’s narration for the Coppola film. But by giving in to the fever somewhat, Tucker makes himself an even more sensitive receptor for the younger men, raised on hip-hop and reality TV. Black soldiers like Sergeant Nick Moncrief rap freely for the camera (a cappella, though in some cases beats and other instrumentation have been dubbed in later): “IEDs be going off while we gotta patrol / Shrapnel be ripping through your fucking skin and your bones / Got a soldier now, and he’s trying to put up a fight / But you really knowing he’s taking the last breaths of his life.”
The white kids, raised on The Simpsons and South Park, are more inclined toward mockery. After Armed Forces Radio reports that Donald Rumsfeld is pushing for approval of the president’s war budget, one smart-ass shows Tucker his vehicle, reinforced with scrap metal: “Part of our $87 billion budget provided for us to have some secondary armor put on top of our thin-skinned Humvee. This armor was made in Iraq, it is high quality metal, and it will probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going clean through.” His buddies howl with laughter, and one rolls on the ground, giving the fleeting but disturbing impression of a critically wounded man.
The movie’s most enthusiastic jester is Specialist Stuart Wilf, a 19-year-old from Colorado who joined the army straight out of high school and makes one of his first appearances in a T-shirt declaring MY ASS STINKS LIKE SHIT. Wilf admits that he’s fired his weapon only once, at an empty building, amending this confession with a bit of movie bravado: “If there was someone in there, they weren’t happy, I can tell ya dat.” A headbanger in high school, he contributes some heavy-metal squall on his electric guitar and portable amp, and Tucker frames him in silhouette against the night sky as he plucks out Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Dressed in Arab garb, he dances around like an idiot after four days’ leave in Qatar; later he uses an old mop as a beard to mimic an imam. He’s a classic army yahoo, but he’s no fool: given almost the last word in the movie, he quietly admits, “There’s not really any rationalization behind somebody’s child dying. I don’t think it’s worth the death of someone’s family member.”
Despite all the amateur theatrics, Gunner Palace is jammed with information and serious testimony, giving a detailed and textured account of what it’s like to be fighting the war more than a year after victory was declared. Few of the soldiers speak out about the pretext for the war or the Pentagon’s execution of it. But Sergeant Robert Beatty is consistently candid, noting the Iraqis’ simmering resentment of American soldiers and questioning the commitment of the security forces they’re training. (It’s a lot stronger stuff than I’ve heard coming from U.S. military personnel on Fox or CNN, which suggests that the networks themselves are willing to keep a lid on such sentiments without the Pentagon’s prodding.) Beatty also articulates a resentment that many of the soldiers seem to feel toward the people at home who watched the taking of Baghdad on TV but then moved on to other amusements. As Tucker points out in his narration, movies always end, but war is never ending.
Where: Century 12 and CineArts 6, Landmark’s Century Centre
Info: 847-492-0123, 773-509-4949