Judge Adam Arseneau was listening to "Ride of the Valkyries" when somebody stole his surfboard.
Some war stories will never make the nightly news.
"Most of us don't see this on the news anymore. We have reality TV instead—Joe Millionaire, Survivor. Well, survive this…a year in Baghdad without changing the channel."
So says the opening narration in Gunner Palace, a moving and puzzling documentary from the front lines of the American occupation in Iraq that tells the tale of 400 American soldiers stuck in the heart of the insurgency in Baghdad. Perplexing in its motivations, the documentary refuses to sway to a simplistic political stance, opting simply to tag along with the troops and tell all that it sees.
And boy, what a tale it tells.
Facts of the Case
Filmed over a two-month period, Gunner Palace tells the story of 400 American soldiers of 2/3 Field Artillery, a.k.a. "The Gunners," stationed in a palace of luxury, surrounded by all sides by hatred and volatility. In an abandoned pleasure palace belonging to Saddam Hussein's son, Uday Hussein, the troops have made a fortification in the heart of insurgency, enjoying the opulent ballrooms, luxury swimming pools, golf course, side-by-side with the demolished and mortared rooms of wreckage. The soldiers patrol the streets of Baghdad, break up riots, examine empty plastic bags for explosive devices, raid suspected caches of weapons, and generally try and stay one step ahead of the snipers, the stones and the spit.
Coming to terms with a film like Gunner Palace is challenging, for lack of a better word. The film has a discouraging way of underwhelming almost any expectation you can place upon it. It is not violent, nor is it particularly controversial in the strictest sense. It toys with exploitation, but never veers far from neutrality. It rarely postures a liberal ideology nor extols a hawkish manifesto. It simply exists; which is a very troubling thing for an American wartime documentary to do.
It would be a simple affair if Gunner Palace were decrying the war itself, either propping up or bringing down the morality and politics of the Iraq occupation. Then, one could simply come down on the film either as a pro-war supporter or an anti-war protestor, dust off their hands and get on with their daily lives. That would be easy. Irritatingly, Gunner Palace goes out of its way to make this sort of moral judgment excessively difficult. It cares not for reasons why the United States invaded Iraq, nimbly avoiding such political pitfalls. Instead, Gunner Palace is a film about the people; not only the soldiers occupying the land, but the people who live there, the Iraqis who take it upon themselves to try and assist the U.S. Army. Gunner Palace walks the fine line of bipartisanship, and manages to pull off the feint quite effectively. After all, when you take a 19-year old farm boy from the Midwest, put a M60 in his arms and send him out onto the streets of Baghdad, having rocks hurled at him, debating the finer nuances of U.S. foreign policy become staggeringly irrelevant.
To be frank, Gunner Palace seems to be more critical of the American public's casual dismissal of the soldiers in Iraq than the politics of the war itself. It cares not for the hows and whys of the occupation, only the "nows." It is an examination of the daily lives of the 2/3 Field Artillery, a.k.a. "The Gunners" bunkered down in an abandoned "pleasure palace" owned by the Hussein family. They patrol the streets nightly and making the occasional raid, on the lookout for explosives and snipers. Sometimes they roust an innocent family in the middle of the night, finding nothing; sometimes they stumble upon hidden caches of rocket launchers and hundreds of thousands of dollars. They eat Burger King, have freestyle rap battles, listen to heavy metal, e-mail their families, play golf and do cannonballs off the diving board in the palace swimming pool. Most are no older than 20. This is the life of a modern soldier in Baghdad; a mixture of earthly pleasures, frat-boy antics, and the constant threat of being shot at in a crowd by people whose language you do not understand. One day down, 364 more to go.
The film itself is told is a very loose narrative, barely structured in any fashion; a documentary free to run wild in any direction it chooses. The narrator occasionally adds interjections or observations on the activities of the soldiers, but only when necessary, and is mostly content to sit back and let the film weave its own ambiguous narrative as the Gunner Palace crew live a strange and balanced life between swimming, playing guitar, having outdoor barbeques in Uday Hussein's pleasure palace, taking patrols on the streets and having schoolchildren simultaneously praise them and throw rocks at them. The attitude of the soldiers is positive, all things considering; yes, they are at war, but they make the best of it as they can. As they relax in their bunks at night, mortars explode perilously close to the compound, but the soldiers barely flinch, a shocking testament to how accustomed they have become to the reality of life in Baghdad. The modern U.S. soldier is one of extremes; they work and train incredibly hard, but party and relax even harder.
About two-thirds of the way through Gunner Palace, the tone of the film has a noticeable shift, right after the documentary narrator has returned home to Seattle. He receives an e-mail from Gunner Palace about the death of a soldier killed in the line of duty, which prompts the filmmaker to return to Baghdad (well, at least for the sake of the film's narrative, it does). What was once lighthearted in Gunner Palace has become cold and callous, the casual and flippant attitudes of the soldiers giving way to cynicism. The soldiers laugh hysterically as a gunner sarcastically showcases the "secondary armor" generously provided by the $87 billion war investment—scrap metal salvaged from the streets of Baghdad haphazardly draped over windows and doors. The soldiers begin training loccal Iraqi forces to replace the battalion once they withdraw, but are appalled by their apathy and casual attitude towards basic training. It is as if the growing uncertainty and pessimism slowly creeping into the public opinion back home in the United States has finally begun percolating down into the troops in Iraq.
I loved the ambiguousness and the honesty in Gunner Palace, the emotional resonance of being completely forthright and yet respectful of the subject matter. Ironically, most people are used to seeing this subject matter presented in only one of two forms: either propagandistic newsreels or exploitative and sensationalist Michael Moore films. Gunner Palace, thankfully, is neither, and that makes it a rare gift indeed. The film does not have bloody altercations, serious atrocities, or embarrassing gaffes for the Army to decry, but nor is there anything particularly exploitative for vindictive anti-war protestors to latch onto. Gunner Palace leaves the viewer to place all these elements on the film itself, rather than placing them upon the viewer. If something embarrassing or exciting happens, the film presents it in a matter-of-fact, straightforward way. It neither glorifies nor condemns The Gunners for their actions; it merely observes them, and lets them speak for their own actions. The soldiers themselves set the direction of the film, not the filmmakers.
Music is a key element of Gunner Palace, but not in the way you may think. The film has hardly any soundtrack of its own; rather, many members of the 2/3 FA enjoy freestyle rapping on the camera, spinning elaborate poems of strife, boredom, apathy, anger and resentment, or whatever else may come to mind. The film is interjected with these sporadic rhyme sessions, which serve as perfect backdrops to the climate of the film. These freestyles above all else tell the true story of Gunner Palace, straight from the lips of the men and women who carve out an existence on the border between patriotism and danger…full of pop culture references, fear, references to fallen comrades, and anything else on their mind. Their inclusion as the sole musical and poetic backdrop to the film is a masterstroke in filmmaking, since no other music could possibly have the same emotional impact.
Two audio tracks are included; a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track and a Dolby Surround 5.1 track. Both sound quite respectable, with decent bass levels, good balance between dialogue and ambient noises, but the surround track simply opens up the streets of Baghdad into your living room. Not only is the 5.1 track louder than the stereo track, the rear channels expand the ambient cacophony of the busy marketplaces, the crowded mosques and the anxious chatter of the Iraqi people hustling and bustling around the American caravans as they patrol. It is an excellent surround presentation for a documentary, to say the least, and captures the daily sounds of soldiers in disturbing realism. For example: hearing the sound of actual bullets flying through the air filmed by a camera man running for his life is an alarming experience. They sound absolutely nothing like the bullets that whiz by so convincingly in action-packed summer blockbusters. Real-life bullets sound dull, like tiny muffled pops, and the sound is one of the most disturbing you will ever hear.
The image, shot on digital film, is soft and vibrant in color tone to the point of oversaturation. The transfer is clean and exhibits the varying amounts of grain typical of the digital format, especially during night shots, but overall represents a very effective presentation. The softness of the transfer gives the entire Iraq experience an ethereal haze, as if peering into a dream, with overwhelming color tones of green and orange seeping into the skyline, and helps prevent digital jaggedness and antialiasing. Black levels are quite reasonable, so overall, Gunner Palace has a decent presentation.
A few extras are included, including the standard trailers and web links; none of which are particularly jaw-dropping, but always nice to have included. About 15 deleted sequences are available on the DVD as deleted scenes, with a handy "play all" feature, which is a nice addition. Most of the tracks are simply soldiers talking into the camera for a minute or two, telling tales or anecdotes too long to be included in the film. They make for good extra value, no doubt. Beyond that, the only additional feature is a "Gunner Freestyle" section containing three audio tracks of freestyles performed by the Gunners, the majority of which appear in the film, if only abridged. This film could have used more in the way of extras…a director's commentary track would have been divine, or even a commentary track by some of the soldiers themselves. Alas.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It is hard to know when to draw the line in Gunner Palace between the outright exploitation and naïvete of 19-year old soldiers to be filmed on-camera and willingness to tell all, of using the innocence of the brave and willing to prop up a particular political ideology…and the valid and irritating observation that this kind of information about the Iraq occupation is simply not getting out of the country anymore. This is an intimate glimpse into a war that is on everyone's minds, revealing information that the public simply has not been granted access to, for whatever reasons…be it from intervention by the administrator, reluctance by major media outlets to cover the material, or simply sheer coincidence.
Is this film exploitative? To be honest, I have no idea. The political ideology of war itself is so complex that it defies all attempts to rationalize the actions of the documentary makers chronicling events that are themselves so utterly insane. And that sentence barely makes any sense when you read it out loud.
What I do know is that it is all too easy to forget the human face behind the Iraq war; that young men and women are placed in a hostile environment day after day, and that Iraqi citizens risk their lives assisting the US Army, branded as traitors by their own people. The news has become rather sterile in regards to the Iraq war as of late…most reporters could tell you the exact date that Terri Schiavo was pulled off life support, or the exact movements of Michael Jackson at Neverland Ranch, but have no idea how many American troops had been killed that day in Iraq. This is not a biased political statement; it is simple observation.
I cannot always agree with the methodology of Gunner Palace, and I am unsure of the film's true motivations, despite having watched the film twice. What I can say, however, is that above all else, this is a film about the people who are directly impacted by the Iraq occupation…both the soldiers and the Iraqi people themselves. Theirs is an important story and one that deserves to be told, in full, as honestly and as openly as possible. Gunner Palace may not be a perfect story; but as of now, it is one of the only ones being told.
Gunner Palace, to its credit, attempts to impose little will whatsoever on its subject matter, attempting to be simply a collection of footage collected over a two month period by a journalist stationed with a battalion of troops in the heart of Baghdad. Whether it succeeds in this attempt at objectivity or not is a debatable point, for the subject matter itself may sabotage any attempt to make a balanced and biased-free film of any kind. After all, the film does follow the same path of declining optimism of the American people…a giddy sense of righteousness and optimism giving way to depression and dejection. But even this point is debatable. Perhaps it is simply too controversial a subject to remain neutral in the hearts and minds of people today.
Thankfully, what the documentary does succeed in doing is being a totally incredible piece of filmmaking. All politics aside, Gunner Palace is an honest, upfront and strong piece of documentary work, and should be mandatory viewing for everyone, be you peacenik or war hawk.
Not guilty. Plus, it's cheap, and money from the DVD goes to support the families of American troops. Go buy it.
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• "Exclusive Gunner Freestyle" Rap Audio Tracks
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