Broken down `Gunner Palace'

Trite documentary on soldiers in Iraq


March 18, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Although the acclaimed documentary Gunner Palace contains some electrifying vignettes of the Iraq war, its jaggedly elliptical and hopped-up style lands it in a limbo between ragged and slick.

It chronicles U.S. soldiers in Baghdad enduring lethal attacks in "minor combat" months after President Bush declared an end to "major" operations. The filmmakers, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, juxtapose hair-raising street chaos with the otherworldly atmosphere of Uday Hussein's bombed-out pleasure palace, where the Gunners of the 2-3 Field Artillery bunk and party and practice their golf swings.

It's a contrast too easily dubbed "surreal"; at any rate, this movie doesn't earn that adjective. The directors lack focus and control. Tucker and Epperlein may even exaggerate the anarchy of Iraq with their frenetic approach. They jump from one soldier to another without filling out a single personality; they end up with a cast of caricatures. When Tucker says he felt close to a slain officer from Seattle, the admission takes us by surprise.

These directors shuffle "positive" and "negative" anecdotes - some Yanks coddle babies at an orphanage, others smirk their way through the homes of suspected insurgents. This version of the networks' old equal-time rule hardly amounts to "vision." And the filmmakers overuse the soldiers' rap songs; they become shorthand anthems of gracelessness under pressure. Even the titles that list days of the week and times of day function more as graphic jazz than as useful information.

Gunner Palace never generates its own power. It derives an erratic potency from our knowledge of what was happening at places like Abu Ghraib when the soldiers were sending detainees there.

Tucker lived at Gunner Palace in two stints for 60 days, so the movie has been promoted as a "dirty embed" film boasting hard-rock epiphanies about poorly equipped Americans ill-prepared to fight in such a volatile region. But the film will be eye-opening only if you haven't read modern combat books or watched the better war coverage on PBS or cable. Is it news that 19-year-olds sent on police assignments would rather seem callous than show concern or fear?

The movie does bring home the constant threat of Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, which can be as inconspicuous as crumpled plastic bags. It's undeniably scary to see crowds gather as a result of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence and suddenly turn anti-American. There's riveting drama in house-to-house operations that either net hidden weapons or create new haters because of the soldiers' blunders and crude tactics.

Sometimes, the film's banality proves reassuring. A "Gunnerpalooza" celebration after a raid, with troops dancing in and around the palace pool to "My Girl," comes off as a pleasant little Motown party. Most of the time, Gunner Palace is just trite. It's become a cause celebre for the cultural press corps, but a botch is still a botch, even with The New York Times' Frank Rich puffing it up.

Gunner Palace

Documentary by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein

Released by Palm Pictures

Rated PG-13

Time 85 minutes

Sun Score **

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