‘Gunner Palace’ Goes Inside Soldiers’ Lives on the Front Lines

Gunner Palace opens with titles quoting Donald Rumsfeld about how the situation in Baghdad has improved by September 2003. The title then reads, “Meanwhile,” and a shaky camera captures a gunfire exchange and the operator’s attempt to avoid getting hit. While the major confrontations have ended, the minor combat continues.

A voiceover then introduces the metaphor of media and reality in relation to the war: “Most of us don’t see this on the news anymore. We have reality TV instead. ‘Joe Millionaire, Survivor.’ Well, survive this — a year in Baghdad without changing the channel.”

That camera operator and voiceover is Michael Tucker, who lived with the 2/3 Field Artillery in a bombed-out palace once belonging to Uday Hussein. In a style reminiscent of Ross McElwee, Tucker gets an inside look at the lives of the soldiers living in what has been dubbed “Gunner Palace.”

More pastiche than narrative, Tucker’s film provides a first-person look into both on-duty and off-duty lives for the soldiers. Duty proves potentially dangerous at all times. For example, an IED (improvised explosive device) causes them to stop traffic for 15 minutes only to find nothing threatening. Even though that incident was a safe call, IEDs still provide a constant threat: Another one takes out two buses and kills 75 people later on. The soldiers patrol the streets in their humvees and go on regular raids of suspected insurgents’ homes. Tucker accompanies them on several missions.

Off-duty time shows a different side of being stationed in Iraq. The palace includes a huge swimming pool, putting green, and even a stocked fishing pond. As one soldier says, “We dropped a bomb on it, now we party in it.”

But what are the soldiers doing there? In the voiceover Tucker explains how the they have become police officers, social workers, politicians, propaganda distributors, and even truant officers — all big responsibilities for some who are barely out of high school. Many of them hail from small-town America, including Argyle, NY, and Chesterton, IN.

One of the more notable and recurring faces is Stuart Wilf, of Monument, Colorado, who compares his year with a road construction project at home. In that time he has has been working to rebuild a country, while the project at home has made “some progress.” He also tools around on the guitar, one of the several soldiers who perform music in this film. Other soldiers such as Richmond Shaw, also known as the “Palace Poet,” perform rap lyrics:

“When we take a dip, we try to stick to the script
But when those guns start blazing and our friends get hit
That’s when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy
Cause for y’all this is just a show
But we live in this movie.”

Another is Billie Grimes, who is the only woman interviewed for the film and who appeared on the cover of Time magazine as one of the “people of the year” in 2004. She talks about picking up and treating the wounded in one segment that is constantly interrupted with white flash edits and other transitions which attempt to make her talk seamless but instead make it jarring. Another time she mentions how the Iraqis react to her presence, noting that many of them had not seen a woman in uniform before.

Tucker also explores a little bit with the Iraqis’ experiences. He interviews several of the translators who talk about wanting life to be better in their country, but his more intimate insights come through his camera alone. His going along with the soldiers on the raids gives him incredible access in this regard. One Iraqi captured in a raid rambles about being a journalist even though the soldiers tell him to keep quiet: “You see that in the camera. I am journalist. You do that, you mistake this. … Just shut your mouth in Iraq. Just shut your mouth.”

On that same raid Tucker zooms in through a window to reveal a shot of women crying in the house. This is both a very intimate and intrusive moment, but powerful nonetheless as it reveals (though briefly) the often forgotten or overlooked aspect of war’s impact on women.

Reports from the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service inform us and the soldiers about the war in the news. One report discusses the proposed $87 billion budget, and Tucker shows a soldier’s response to that report with an explanation of the improvised armor — made from scrap metal — on some of the humvees. The soldier talks about how the metal might slow the shrapnel down enough so it stays within a body instead of just tearing right through it; other soldiers are laughing uproariously in the background.

The film is very careful to provide titles that guide us through the quick changes in scene, action, and person. Almost everyone is identified with name and rank; new raids and other missions are also identified by place and intention. In voiceover Tucker provides more background information when needed. Some of the titles also provide a bit of humor, particularly with Wilf, such as “Wilf for President” and “300 Days without Beer.” Every question Tucker poses also becomes a title on the screen.

War means death and this film handles it carefully, mostly through Tucker’s own hearing of the news that a couple men he filmed had died. For most of the film Tucker remains behind the camera and in the voiceover, primarily a witness to events but not an instigator of them. His own interests stay out of the frame, until about 54 minutes into the piece, when he goes back home. “For me, the war was over,” he says in voiceover as he makes coffee and looks at the pictures on his fridge. Like in Iraq, he remains behind the camera as he walks into his studio and checks e-mail, through which he learns about the death of Ben Colgan.

While this segment might seem a personal moment, it actually disrupts the film instead. After the time in Tucker’s home, with a shot of his daughter even, the scene returns to Iraq and the film continues for another half hour. Instead of being a touching climax, it serves as more of an interruption. The war isn’t over for him after all.

On a side note, this film originally received an “R” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, primarily for the word “fuck” being said more than 40 times. Tucker appealed the ruling — after all, who says “gosh, darn” while being shot at? The MPAA rerated the film as “PG-13.”

Gunner Palace ends by returning to the “television channel” metaphor that opens the film. In voiceover Tucker states, “Unlike a movie, war has no end.” We can hit a button on the remote, but for the people in this film, the war continues (for now).

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