Documentaries, like spinach, are supposed to be good for you and healthy for the body politic. The most striking thing about Gunner Palace, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s fascinating, if not entirely satisfying, digital video portrait of U.S. forces in Iraq, is that it addresses a hunger for leafy greens—which is to say, images of the war—that you may not have known you had.
Those who lived through the Vietnam period—and perhaps even more those who didn’t—are familiar with that war’s lysergic jungle iconography, rock chopper soundtrack, and druggy “Born to Kill” ethos. Gunner Palace, which John Kerry screened for his fellow senators last month, begins to provide a comparable simulation. Its points of reference are not Motown and westerns but rap and reality TV. Indeed, this often chaotic camcorder documentary—produced during Tucker’s two two-month stretches embedded with the 2-3 Field Artillery—most often suggests a combination of The Real World and Cops, set to a plaintive gangsta beat.
The “Gunners” are barracked in one of Uday Hussein’s pleasure palaces. “We dropped a bomb on it and now we party in it,” one of Tucker’s roommates explains. The ambience suggests a post-nuclear Las Vegas—a bunch of small-town kids with automatic weapons camped out in an abandoned luxury hotel, splashing around in the pool, putting golf balls amid the rubble of a goonish Arabian Nights fantasy. But these children of Oprah and the Internet are nothing if not self-conscious. Most are happy to perform for Tucker’s camcorder, clowning in burnoose or expressing inanities they might have heard on TV. The most articulate are the group’s rappers: “When those guns start blazing and our friends get hit, that’s when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy,” Specialist Richmond Shaw concludes his number. “Cuz for y’all this is just a show but we live in this movie.”
The brass is nonexistent but the kids are documented having fun with their Iraqi interpreters—middle-aged guys to whom they give nicknames like Mike Tyson and Superstar. (Throughout the movie, these men are killed off-camera or exposed as spies.) Unable to get jiggy with the local women, the soldiers seem to enjoy themselves most when playing with Iraqi kids. One goes to an orphanage and presents a three-year-old with a SpongeBob SquarePants doll: “He’s one of my heroes.” (Does that constitute child abuse or only cultural imperialism?)
Gunner Palace is set almost entirely in Baghdad, mainly in late 2003, when Saddam, still at large, was being blamed for the insurgency, with additional material filmed in early 2004. GWB had declared major combat to be over 10 months before, but the movie resounds with the rifle fire of “minor combat.” Meanwhile, more distant than guerrilla mortars, upbeat official bulletins whistle overhead: Secretary Rumsfeld conveys his best wishes to the Iraqi people. “Life has improved, Comrades. Life has become more joyous,” as J.V. Stalin told the All-Union Convention of Stakhanovite Workers in 1935.
Adrenaline pumps whenever the Gunners go on downtown patrol. If Vietnam reminded Michael Herr of Fort Apache, this feels more like Fort Apache, the Bronx—complete with glue-sniffing 12-year-old street kids. The soldiers sense hidden hostility all around them—hardly a paranoid response in a world where any stray plastic bag might conceal a roadside bomb. The movie might be subtitled “Incomprehensible Doings on the Iraqi Street.” Nerves are raw. Sometimes the guys enjoy “scaring the natives,” by rolling through town with feedback blasting from their Hummers. A psyop to the barrio carries intimations of Black Hawk Down, although, with a nod to Apocalypse Now, the men play a bit of “Ride of the Valkyries” to set the mood.
No weapons are found in most of the raids we see. Often, however, the Gunners take prisoners anyway—and there’s more resonance than the filmmakers may have originally intended when the soldiers threaten unruly (usually English-speaking) captives with being “sent to Cuba.” Tucker, who comes from a military family, is an empathetic observer of these ordinary enlisted men and one woman. We never see any casualties, although he takes pains to telegraph his suffering when some of the soldiers he’s embedded with die.
Mainly, however, Tucker seems to partake in the mood of disassociated bewilderment. Floating on the surface of confusion, Gunner Palace has a raw home video quality that’s often quite beautiful. Much of the movie is hardly more than an immersion in sights and sounds. Vivid as it is, Gunner Palace is dominated by what isn’t shown. It’s the human face of Abu Ghraib.