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Gunner Palace

DVD reviewed by Ian Dawe

July 14, 2005 | "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 eye.)

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 are MIA.

A 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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