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GUNNER PALACE (Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker, USA, 2005, 6)

If the film-maker could have just shut his damn trap for the whole movie, GUNNER PALACE, which follows embedded documentarian Michael Tucker (co-director with his wife Petra Epperlein) and the soldiers of a field artillery unit from the 1st Armored Division, might have been about two grades higher (certainly one). Now this is not FAHRENHEIT 9/11/2.0. But Tucker hacked me off right away (never a good rhetorical move) with a classic bit of Michael-Moorishness. There’s about a minute of footage of the unit and the embedded film-maker coming under fire from what looks like a sniper. It looks all panicky and whirly and chaotic (as senseless as war itself, man) because the cameraman reasonably enough is just concerned with running to a safe spot and saving his butt, without regard for angles and compositions. Gripping-enough moment. But at the end of it, we got the title card. “Major combat ended four months ago.” Followed by “This is minor combat.” Cue chuckles. Isn’t it ironic. Like rain on your wedding day. Who would’ve thought … it figures. Perspective check here, people. A sniper is a sniper, and he always looks the same from a camera-eye perspective, whether there’s none or a hundred outside the camera’s range. Somewhere in the United States every day, police exchange gunfire with criminals, or some nutjob holes himself up in a house and the cops engage in siege operations. You could produce footage like this “minor combat (cue chuckles)” by the yard and shrink-wrap it to order, add the sarcastic title “this is a country at peace” and conclude that the United States has been invaded for all the relevance the snarky title cards have. In fact, people should put embedded reporters in the cop car and show the footage. I’ll bet there’d be enough for a whole TV show about such cops.

While those Mooreisms never dominate, Tucker can’t resist using his voice-over or other soundtrack elements for them. The film’s last words of narration are truly barf-inducing in their pseudo-profundity: “unlike a movie, war has no end.” Like wow man. Isn’t that deep. Until … you think about it. Who’s still fighting the (no end) War of the Austrian Succession? There’s also the very-edited contrasts between the words of the boots on the ground and the statements on Armed Forces Radio, mostly bureaucratic-sounding statements from Rumsfeld (cue chuckles). This juxtaposition just made me doubt Tucker’s sense of historical perspective and proportion. To anybody familiar with military history, this contrast is nothing new and has nothing particularly to do with the Iraq war, either in its prosecution or its justice. While the particular shapes and details change with the culture of course, the men in the trenches have always complained about the men in the rear and their political masters (and “nobody likes The Boss” is true of most civilian vocations as well). I alluded to griping Confederate soldiers in a review of COLD MOUNTAIN and there’s the famous Willie and Joe cartoons from the World War II Stars and Stripes. Indeed, one of GUNNER PALACE’s most effective moments, about which more anon, is a short bit of soldier-griping. But hearing it from the narrator on the soundtrack just invites the Moore comparison.

I see I’ve already spent way too much space ranting about what’s wrong with GUNNER PALACE, a film to which I’m giving a 6/10 — a guarded recommendation. But it matters because the film had the potential to be a great piece of verite. The film-makers obviously aren’t “trying” to make lefty agitprop but they can’t help themselves. They’re like some pack-a-day smoker who’s trying to quit and mostly succeeding, but he has to sneak at least one or two every day. But GUNNER PALACE does recover (continually) from its (continuing) missteps. The film takes its title from the nickname for the artillery unit’s soldiers — gunners — and its headquarters, a former palace of Uday Hussein. It spends most of its time at HQ with the soldiers and going out on patrol in trucks — in other words doing exactly what soldiers do. Much of the time hanging at Uday’s palace features soldiers performing (mildly amusing) rap numbers.

Those expecting something exceptionally dramatic will be disappointed by GUNNER PALACE. Every war movie ever made has more “Bang Bang” than this movie (and more “Kiss Kiss” too, for that matter). In fact, what’s particularly strong and revelatory about this picture is its defiant lack of conventional drama. There are several raids — some successful in finding the quarry, some not. But none are especially built up to or particularly lengthy or internally-dramatic (none become a set piece, in other words). Most of what occurs in GUNNER PALACE is routine, and to be perfectly frank — kinda boring. However, that rhythm is (I’m told) true to the life of the combat soldier — days or weeks of boredom or basically-civilian tasks interspersed with a few moments or hours of life-or-death terror. But following the soldiers is still gripping, at least to this lifelong civilian, just because of where you are and what the situation is.

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I realize those two juxtaposed adjectives (“boring” and “gripping”) make no sense, but it’s a testament to GUNNER PALACE’s strength that the film accurately captures both. After a while, we realize that we’re more on edge than the soldiers — they’re more concerned about a rat in their sleeping quarters than the mortar blasts (the GIs can tell they’re not close) and have acquired enough experience to tell the difference between hostile gunfire and celebrations at Arab weddings. And the soldiers sometimes guess wrong — one sequence, which eventually becomes funny, involves what they think is a roadside bomb but turns out to be a plastic bag of trash — “the Iraqis were laughing at us,” one soldier notes, adding that the Americans held up traffic both ways on a main road for 15 minutes. Probably not winning many hearts and minds.

“The routine” also involves some touching and mildly amusing bits — a soldier who’s never seen his son holds an orphaned Iraqi newborn as if it were a surrogate. At the same visit, another tries to get an Iraqi child interested in Spongebob Squarepants. In another scene, a soldier tries to train a female member of the Iraqi provisional government in firearm use (while wearing traditional Muslim garb). “Keep it down,” he keeps having to say, reminding her to aim for the sand. There are various Iraqi translators, who may or may not be trustworthy and the soldiers try to navigate among the various Iraqi factions. None of it constitutes great stand-alone material, but together, the scenes produce a quietly effective mosaic of the days and nights of a soldier in the field.

jamesbowman_portraitI agree with basically everything James Bowman of the American Spectator says in particular about GUNNER PALACE, but with hardly any of the conclusions that he draws. I’ve already mentioned the film’s lifelike and undramatic quality, which Bowman takes as a weakness, as one of GUNNER PALACE’s strengths.

In addition, while I agree it is cheap and stupid liberal grandstanding for the film-makers to put “The Ride of the Valkyries” on the soundtrack as the soldiers prepare for a raid (like in APOCALYPSE NOW … set in Vietnam … a quagmire like Iraq … get it … huh … get it) — I think Bowman missed the point. What’s revealing about the scene where Tucker & Epperlein do exactly that bit of liberal grandstanding is that the choice of music turns out not to be, as the sound mix initially implied, wholly that of the film-makers. Rather the soldiers themselves played “Valkyries” on their stereo on their way there. This is a fascinating choice and not just because, as Bowman does note, that the soldiers got their images of soldiering from Vietnam movies (though that’s true to an extent). But it’s as if the soldiers are consciously recoding the music’s meaning and reclaiming its bellicose grandeur and soaring optimism. In fact, the more Bowman is correct that the use of “Valkyries” implies a parallel with Vietnam, the more it is also the case that the soldiers must not accept the dominant liberal narrative of Vietnam. (After all, no high-schooler so much as strolls onto the wrestling mat or, to pick an even wimpier example, enters a debate tournament, planning to lose. Participating in any contest — and war is a contest, of a sort — implies at least some belief in the possibility of success.)

Bowman’s other criticism is that the soldiers are Unmanly Whiners, Products of the Post-Analytic Society.

It used to be thought honorable for those who had suffered in war to make light of the fact, or else to shut up about it. Now it is apparently more honorable for them to “rap” and complain.

Bowman is correct morally, but he obviously missed (1) the difference in gripitude between younger and older soldiers — meaning part of it is just human maturity, and (2) much of the gallows humor in the conversations among the soldiers. And even the Iraqi civilian translators, who crack jokes about being targeted by the Jihadis: “we’ll keep doing this. Until they kill us.” In fact, the funniest sequence in the film shows several soldiers breaking up with laughter at a fake TV segment one of them narrates about the armor plating they’re putting on their Humvees, trying to improvise a minimal amount of protection from roadside bombs. Just how minimal is the punchline of the soldier’s “narration.” This is exactly the sort of sick joke about war wounds — “to make light of the fact” one might say — that soldiers have been making since Homer compared the death of a Trojan from a spear in the jaw to reeling in a stubborn fish. And while the soldiers might bitch, none of them are ashamed of what they do or think themselves suckers (though there is some “us-vs.-them” dynamic toward civilians, presumably including the film-makers, a point driven home especially hard by the one sequence where the film-maker calls into doubt his own standing). But after expressing doubts about the war, one soldier says with puffed-up pride: “I’m going to go home a combat veteran. 19 years old and I’ve fought in a war.” In the admittedly more-informal and rather-less-rousing language of modern times, this is the point of the end of the St. Crispin’s Day speech:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

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March 7, 2005 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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