Documentary filmmaker hung out with troops living in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces.
By MARY F. POLS
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The tag line for "Gunner Palace" reads: "Some war stories will never make the nightly news." The implication you might take from that is that the documentary contains material too inflammatory for the dinner hour.
But what it really means is that television news has seriously fallen down on the job of explaining the basics of war to Americans. Not the big, sexy details, like techniques of the shock and awe campaigns, but rather the everyday existence of human beings doing the basic legwork that comes after the big bangs.
"Gunner Palace" directors Michael Tucker and his wife, Petra Epperlein, nicely step into that breach, giving us a frank look at life on the ground in Iraq, conveying the curious mix of tedium and tension American troops face there daily. Major combat may be over, as President Bush said so many months ago, but "minor combat," as the soldiers like to call it -- homemade bombs, ambushes, treachery -- continues to this day.
Passing it on
The palace of the title belonged at one point to Saddam Hussein, who passed it on to his son Uday. Hit by bombs during the early days of the war, the palace is still standing and still equipped with a swimming pool, putting green and a stocked fishing pond. Between September 2003 and spring 2004, Tucker spent two months with the 400 American soldiers, or "gunners," who were living there. He went along on patrols, on missions (mostly fruitless) to look for the evasive enemy and hung out poolside with them.
Many are mere teenagers, which shouldn't be a surprise. But it is remarkable how mature the 23- and 24-year-olds look in comparison; they're practically elder statesmen. Tucker, who is his own cameraman, doesn't seem to be judging any of his subjects, but some are so young they can't help acting foolish, puffed up as they are on bravado, fear or caffeine (there's no alcohol at Gunner Palace).
That said, there isn't anyone who isn't sympathetic in some way. Take Stuart Wilf, a 19-year-old from Colorado, whom Tucker features prominently. He's seen showing off the crude screen saver on his laptop, wearing an obscene T-shirt, cavorting around in native dress -- not exactly the picture of sensitivity. But you can't dislike this guy, he's so eager to please. On the movie's Web site (www.gunnerpalace.com), you can read his e-mails to the filmmakers, and his desire to connect, to participate, to be helpful, is charmingly youthful.
Tucker gives the soldiers a voice. Some of them choose to rap out their frustrations (pretty well, too); others, like Wilf, use wisecracks, while still others speak passionately of how proud they are to have gone to war for their country. They also talk about their fears, one of the biggest being IEDs (improvised explosive devices); these could be anywhere or look like anything, even a piece of garbage. In one scene, a convoy stops traffic in both directions because of a suspicious plastic bag. It turns out to be harmless, but Tucker and his subjects never let us forget that the most mundane moment in Iraq can, on a dime, turn into a murder scene.
Nor is what the Americans are doing sugarcoated. We see plenty of suspects spoken to roughly, doors broken down for no reason, even a pile of handcuffed suspects in the back of a pickup truck that might remind you of the sickening photos of human pyramids from Abu Ghraib.
"Gunner Palace" isn't overtly political, but if it tilts in any direction, it is to the antiwar viewpoint. As the months go on in Iraq, and the guys grow sick of being constantly afraid of their own shadows or hearing nightly rounds of mortar fire outside the palace, their tones grow wearier. They long for home. Increasingly, they seem to have the sense that they are in danger of being forgotten by their countrymen.
Near the end of the film, Robert Beatty, 23, muses about what impact Tucker's movie will -- or rather, won't -- have.
"After you watch this, you're going to go get your popcorn out of the microwave and talk about what I said, and you'll forget me by the end of this. You'll forget all of us. The only people that will remember this is us." Just hearing those words makes you grateful to "Gunner Palace" for reminding a forgetful nation who our troops are.