Young, dumb, and full of guns

'Gunner Palace' takes an upclose peak at the stressful life on the ground in Iraq

For moviegoers whose concern about the war in Iraq didn't end on Election Day, the new documentary Gunner Palace offers the kind of thing barely attempted by the news networks: an in-depth look at what it's really like to be an American soldier in Iraq, after "major combat" has given way to something that isn't called war, but still presents the daily threat of violent death.

The title refers to the building housing the film's subjects: An opulent mansion that once belonged to Uday Hussein but is now home to his conquerors. Chunks of it are destroyed, but there's still a beautiful swimming pool and enough room for some putting greens, all of which provide recreation for the soldiers who aren't busy honing their guitar skills or improvising rap songs about streets that are a long way from Compton but even more perilous.

Gunner Palace

Dir. Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker (PG-13)
Although there's little doubt that cameraman/narrator Michael Tucker has some doubts about the war's justification and execution - his somber voice and the questions he asks soldiers make that clear - the film is more neutral than might be expected. There's a deliberate lack of "story" in the film's editing, as if the filmmakers really hope to provide a you-are-there experience and little else. (One exception is the repeated inclusion of radio "News Minutes" in which Donald Rumsfeld's accounts of the war's progress are often presented as ironic contrast to what we're seeing.)

The soldiers we meet are a diverse bunch, from straight arrows to smart-alecks who hide any qualms they have about killing. They're not all the kind of people who would be your first choice as ambassadors of American benevolence - the average viewer might even hesitate to trust some of them with a firearm - but they are recognizable human beings, which is more than you can say about most of the characters explaining the war on the evening news.

We get some glimpses into the ways these men and women have made peace with their job: Some work hard to earn the trust of Iraqi civilians; some, faced with constant threat, come to treat every individual as a suspect. Some happily embrace the mythological image of American G.I.'s from wars gone by - as in a nighttime raid where Humvees, like the helicopters in Apocalypse Now, blare Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. (As with the real-life mobsters who ape Godfather clichés, it seems that all of us look to the films of Francis Ford Coppola as a guide for flamboyant living.)

For the most part, though, we just see these soldiers trying to do their jobs without getting killed, and trying to relax when they're not in the line of fire. It's not necessarily what they thought they signed up for (one young guy sadly admits that while he entered the military to "defend America," his current assignment has little to do with that), but they know they're unlikely to escape any time soon.

By John DeFore

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