DVD reviewed by Ian Dawe
| "I don't feel like I'm fighting for my country anymore,"
says a young American soldier in Gunner Palace, "And that
kind of sucks." This is a documentary filled with that kind of ambivalence
towards the conflict in Iraq. Far from being an All-American flag-waving
unquestioningly patriotic defense of their current adventure in
the Middle East, Gunner Palace is a penetrating look into
the war from that messiest of perspectives: the ground.
The first major film to come out of the Iraq Invasion, this documentary
stays away from drawing easy conclusions. It instead follows the
lives of a few soldiers over the course of a year in Iraq, putting
their sense of team and mission before any overt political statement.
The title is derived from their base, a bombed-out pleasure palace
built by Saddam Hussein for his son, Uday, complete with ornate
ballroom and pool. Like Patton plotting the European campaign from
a castle, the officers sit surrounded by opulence wearing fatigues
and (in a concession to modern warfare) surrounded by laptop computers
and satellite phones. The ground soldiers, on the other hand, are
stuffed three or four to a room and enjoy the simpler pleasures
of relaxing in the pool (with no beer, unfortunately, but lots of
Snapple) and teaching their Iraqi translators how to pick up girls.
Any truthful film about war on this level will come to the same
conclusion (and many have): these men aren't necessarily fighting
for their country, or for some vague political ideal. They're fighting
for each other. Their loyalties are to the team, regardless of race
(which appears to be about 50/50 black/white) or even gender (there
are a few female soldiers). When they talk, it's about each other,
or themselves. It bothers them that to the people at home, the war
has become a reality show. A Sergeant says towards the end that
no one viewing the film will remember him, or these soldiers, a
day after watching the film. But he goes on about his work anyway.
The film openly invites comparison to the great war films of the
past, right down to the playing of "Ride of the Valkyries" on the
Hum-V speakers during a nighttime raid, but this is not Apocalypse
Now. The soldiers may be scared and ambivalent (as anyone in
that situation would be), but they're not stoned or tilting towards
evil. If anything, their daily lives revolve around police-style
raids, making arrests and protecting themselves against elements
of the population that are none too friendly towards the American
presence in their country.
One gets only a hint of the face of the "enemy" in the film, and
this is perhaps its weakest element. There is no sense that those
who oppose the American invasion are anything more than anarchist
cranks fueled by some strange medieval religion (that none of the
soldiers, by the way, take much interest in understanding). One
telling raid scene carries just the slightest hint of how some Iraqis
may be feeling about the war. The soldiers pull a few suspects from
their home in the middle of the night, scream "shut up" at them
and force them to kneel with hands behind their head, even though
there is no clear evidence that they've done anything wrong. "I'm
a journalist!" cries one of the prisoners. This doesn't change the
attitude of the soldier. "Shut up," he says again. The journalist
turns to the camera and says bitterly, "Yes, that's all we get here
in Iraq. Shut up." The scene is quickly over, and we're back to
the soldiers with their rock and hip-hop music diving into the pool,
talking about the "rush" of war.
It's probably unfair to expect a simple soldier on the ground to
understand the larger implications of what they're doing. They're
simply following orders and doing their job. Their minds turn constantly
to home, even as they, in unguarded moments, complain about how
directionless their lives were back there. The bravado become tempered
with more wisdom as the film goes on, marching towards its uncertain
ending in which they train local citizens to be their replacements.
("You'd better make it work," says an American Sgt to the Iraqi
one he's training, viewing the ramshackle local troops with a skeptical
It is too early to draw clear conclusions about the war in Iraq,
and no one knows more about how it's being fought than the soldiers
who stand guard every night outside Gunner's Palace. For a cinematic
document of the war, that's probably the best place to start.
Gunner Palace is a special and distinctive film trapped
within a rather mediocre DVD package. The picture is non-anamorphic
1:85:1 widescreen, which occasionally cuts into a cropped 4:3 mode
for interviews. Why the producers chose to go a non-anamorphic route
in the age of HDTV is quite beyond me, but the video-shot image
clearly suffers from the decision. The sound is presented in a fairly
active Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix, unusual for a documentary,
but other than a few unremarkable deleted scenes, the extra features
freelance writer and longtime film enthusiast, Ian
Dawe is now completing a Master's Degree in Film History. He
currently teaches at Selkirk College in Castlegar, British Columbia.
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