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Gunner Palace (documentary)

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Among the myriad documentaries that have emerged in the past few years to laud or lambast George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, “Gunner Palace” is the one with the least divisive agenda. The filmmakers are apparently against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but their film does not belabor that point. Instead, the focus is on the soldiers of Baghdad, to show us what their daily lives are like. Good and bad, smart and dumb, patriotic and merely arrogant, it’s all here.

Gunner Palace is the nickname for a bombed-out Hussein property that is now home to some 400 U.S. Army troops. The enormous palace — complete with ballroom and swimming pool — was a pleasure dome for Saddam’s son Uday, and is located in Adhamiya, a Sunni stronghold where Saddam made his last public appearance before the fall of Baghdad. As such, it’s a dangerous area, and in September 2003, four months after the end of “major combat,” the soldiers spend their days acting as police officers, social workers, crowd-control specialists and bomb-disarmers.

It is narrated by Michael Tucker, who co-directed with Petra Epperlein, and Tucker has written his monologue to resemble a Dashiell Hammett private detective story. “Some days, it’s almost normal here,” he intones like a hard-boiled detective. “It’s how you hope it would be. Peaceful.” You half-expect a dame with legs up to here to walk into his office, bringing nothin’ but trouble with her.

Most of the troops are young, hotheaded, lusty men, around 19 or 20 years old and intoxicated by their own machismo. Many are barely high school graduates; most are dirtbags, F-dudes, head-bangers, frat jerks, dumb jocks, tools, whatever term you prefer for that particular breed of faux-mature, testosterone-heavy, “Halo 2”-playing idiot. And there they are, defending freedom and planting the seeds of democracy.

In fairness, most of the officers are more experienced and sensible, and the film does not dwell on military misbehavior. In fact, the film cannot be said to “dwell” on anything or anyone. We get their names and jobs in captions, but only one or two are featured enough to be considered stand-outs. There is no through-line or story thread, per se, but merely an ongoing glimpse at the day-to-day activity of our troops overseas. For that reason, the movie, even at only 85 minutes, is far too long. I am glad to see a film about Iraq that is practically agenda-free, but a slice-of-life like this loses steam after about 45 minutes. At least a strident political viewpoint gives you something to talk about.

Note: The film contains a few dozen uses of the F-word, yet is rated PG-13. The MPAA originally gave it the expected R rating, then changed its mind after an appeal from Palm Pictures, which distributes the film. Palm Pictures reasoned that if high school students who are considering entering the military want to see the film, which details the daily lives of modern soldiers, they should be able to. In reversing its decision, the MPAA shows a rare glimmer of common sense. Their job should not be to count swear words or naked breasts, but to give movies ratings that take into account their audience, their intentions and their messages.

C+ (1 hr., 25 min.; PG-13, with a few dozen F-words.)

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