Gunner Palace directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. 85 minutes. A Mongrel Media Release. Opens Friday (April 15). For venues and times, see Movies, page 99. Rating: NN Rating: NN
In the new documentary gunner Palace, a young American soldier wonders,"How many people can say 'I'm 19 years old and I fought in a war'?"
It's a simple enough question, but one that evokes difficult issues about portraying the Iraq War. Are soldiers heroes, martyrs, maniacs or dupes? Can good people fight a bad war? Can bad people fight a good war?
A glut of indie Iraq War documentaries, our main conduit to what's really happening in Saddam's former fiefdom, are putting such queries at centre stage. It's up to filmmakers to grapple with the morality of showing everything from partying soldiers to Iraqis begging for their lives.
Gunner Palace (see review, this page) is the latest documentary to join the Iraq War doc fray. The film follows the 2/3 Field Artillery (the gunners) as they patrol some of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad and relax at their base, a palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein's son Uday.
What's remarkable is how many similar-seeming docs about Iraq purporting to tell the truth "not seen on the nightly news" can have such divergent points of view.
These include BattleGround: 21 Days On The Empire's Edge, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About The Iraq War, Confronting Iraq, The Ground Truth: The Human Cost Of War, Voices Of Iraq, Control Room, Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories, WMD: Weapons Of Mass Deception, About Baghdad, Weapon of Mass Destruction: The Murderous Reign Of Saddam Hussein, A Company Of Soldiers and Soldiers Pay.
Inevitably, controversy surrounds these films. After all, what could be more contentious than portraying men and women risking and taking lives in a war launched on a lie?
Increasingly, even the circumstances around how these docs get shown are the subject of rancour. We know that Disney financed but refused to release Fahrenheit 9/11.
Soldiers Pay, directed in part by David O. Russell, was made to be shown in theatres at screenings of Three Kings, his re-released feature on the first Iraq War. But like Disney, Warner Brothers refused to cooperate. A spokesperson for the studio called the film a "polemic" that could not be attached to an "entertainment piece."
Three Kings is an "entertainment" about soldiers who plot to steal treasure and end up saving a group of desperate refugees. It can hardly be called apolitical. And yet, as the present war rages, the networks and studios are desperate to maintain the illusion that their programming decisions don't involve politics.
Even PBS is struggling to make room for docs that don't necessarily toe the party line. Execs bleeped out the swearing in A Company Of Soldiers, made for its news program Frontline, and told affiliates that wanted to show the film uncensored that they would not be protected by PBS against Federal Communications Commission fines or lawsuits. You can portray as many people being slaughtered as you want in war movies, but showing real soldiers uttering terrified holy fucks as mortar fire arcs over their heads is politically dicey.
Gunner Palace doesn't bleep out any of its many profanities and originally got an R rating in the U.S. The filmmakers appealed the rating, arguing that the American military recruits teenagers, so they should be allowed to see it.
Weirdly enough, their appeal was successful. The doc got a PG-13 rating, so the kids can be both educated and entertained.
Gunner Palace (Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein) Rating: NN
Gunner Palace features terrific moments of confusion, terror and hilarity but never manages to turn isolated incidents into a unified whole.
The film follows the 2/3 Field Artillery (the gunners) as they patrol some of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad.
The best moments occur inside their compound, a bombed-out palace complete with gorgeous swimming pool that was once party central for Saddam's son Uday.
In this relative safety, the troops cavort in the pool, rap, play guitar and kid around while musing on the whys and hows of life in a desert war zone. A bunch of 19-year-olds make it clear that they doubt viewers back at home will ever understand what they're going through.
Unfortunately, they're right. Overlapping scenes of night raids become a blur. By the time the filmmakers present an unnecessarily maudlin I'm-safe-back-at-home scene replete with reminders that some guys will never come back, we're struggling to put names to faces.