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Gunner Palace

(2005) *** R
86 min. Palm Pictures. Directors: Michael Tucker (II), Petra Epperlein, Mike Tucker. Cast: Bryant Davis, Nick Moncrief, Richmond Shaw, Devon Dixon, Javorn Drummond.

Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace makes for a valuable if understandably haphazard record of the American occupation of Iraq. The film provides the soldiers' view of a conflict that heated up significantly after President Bush declared an end to major operations in Iraq. That sort of irony is lost on neither the soldiers, whose senses of humor are pronounced, nor the filmmakers.

As they trail the 400 men and women of the 2/3 Field Artillery, Tucker and Epperlein mostly let the soldiers speak for themselves. They relish their home base, the bombed out palace of Uday Hussein, where they throw pool parties, dance, or freestyle expressions of doubt and the need to be understood. One raps, "For y'all this is just a show, but we live in this movie," and another bemoans, "You're just afraid that no one's going to know." The soldiers feel forgotten; indeed, the film's existence is a public service.

A combat vet-to-be boasts, "I mean, I'm 19 years old, and I fought in a war." Older soldiers tend to share a grimmer outlook on the long-term mission, while others sustain themselves by laughing at the absurdities around them. Tucker and Epperlein also found a star in SPC Stuart Wilf, a young, guitar-playing imp with many opinions and much good-humored energy (Wilf was featured as one of the cover representations of Time's Person of the Year: the American soldier). Wilf confesses that the 2/3 Field Artillery are "fighting not for a better Iraq, but just to stay alive").

Tucker's intrusive and melodramatic narration never specifically indicts the Bush administration, but Donald Rumsfeld's pronouncements and upbeat Armed Forces Radio broadcasts contrast to the soldiers' accounts; hence, the filmmakers' cheeky juxtapositions strongly infer their politics. There's also a raid scored to "Ride of the Valkyries" (a nod to "war is hell" film Apocalypse Now). One soldier does the equivalent of a stand-up routine about the inefficiency of the makeshift armored plating on the company's humvees (sorry, Donald).

The filmmakers follow teams on actual raids, where the civil rights of suspects are obviously not a priority. Though the film focuses on the lives of our men and women in Iraq, the impression inevitably remains that of a war that may be—in its breadth and unpredictablity—impossible to win.

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