Grand illusions

‘Gunner Palace’ offers an immediate and urgent look behind the battle lines

For a first-person documentary about the hostilities in Iraq, “Gunner Palace” is not very exciting.

Then again, that’s kind of the point.

“Gunner Palace” is directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s intimate and painfully immediate account of everyday life for U.S. soldiers now stationed in Iraq.

The appeal of this film is, in large part, because of the incompetence and tepidness of the national media since the war’s start two years ago.

Average Americans really don’t have a clue of what’s going on now in Iraq, some 22 months after President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft career, overshadowed by a banner that hailed “Mission Accomplished.” Daily news reports have become repetitive. They are limited to car bombs and small additions to the U.S. death toll, now more than 1,500.

But “Gunner Palace” goes beyond the daily headlines and tiresome political rhetoric to give us an up-close picture of the mean streets of Baghdad, Iraq.

Only, they’re not that mean.

Tucker lives with the 2/3 Field Artillery Division of the Army’s 1st Armored Division during its daily routines. This is the same division that was featured on the cover of Time magazine when Time declared “The American Soldier” as the 2003 person of the year.

He accompanies the division during daily street patrols, nightly raids, intelligence sweeps and diplomatic missions. He also juxtaposes those scenes with the soldiers’ down time at Gunner Palace – one of Saddam

Hussein’s former palaces that has been converted into a makeshift retreat for the troops.

Some aspects of the documentary deserve scrutiny. Tucker narrates the film in first person and includes footage of his own return home to create a bizarre contrast with the daily lives of the troops.

And just as “COPS” doesn’t give the full story of a police officer’s life on the street, it would be naive to think this edited footage offers a definitive perspective on the life of an average U.S. soldier in Iraq.

What the film does capture, though, is sobering.

These men and women, toting guns and wearing armor, have been asked to accomplish the almost impossible. They are not just soldiers but also impromptu diplomats, asked to win over the peace in one moment and exert force in the next. In one moment, they are helping escort a drunken man home. In the next, they are raiding a house based on intelligence obtained from what is discovered to be questionable sources. And finally, they are sending a self-proclaimed journalist to Abu Ghraib prison.

We start to understand why the general Iraqi population hates our presence there.

Meanwhile, they go about their days while being pelted by rocks and dirty looks from those who clearly don’t want them there. In a bewildering paradox, the soldiers are constantly in danger, yet the danger has no specific face.

In between patrols, Tucker and Epperlein record these men rapping, as they use music to express their grief, anger and fear. “For y’all, it’s just a show, but we live in this movie,” one soldier says. It becomes obvious “Gunner Palace” might not matter in a year but is eminently important for the purpose it serves right now.

On the surface, the film gives the audience an inside look at a war and a reality that has been lost amid political rumblings.

“Gunner Palace” hints that behind the body count, the more serious threat of budding civil war is lurking.