Few historians question that the 20th century will be remembered as "The American Century," a transformative handful of decades when the United States emerged from its inward-looking isolation on far-flung continent to become a nation of global influence, participating in two world wars, a dozen regional conflicts, and an all-encompassing 50-year stare-down with an equally powerful communist bloc. Various policies were crafted and guided by such statesmen as Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Reagan, but only one entity was a witness to it all the American G.I. The common moniker (meaning "general issue") has been downplayed by the Pentagon in recent years in favor of "service members," but the term "G.I." retains international connotations, from the doughboys of World War I to the dogfaces of World War II, the grunts of Vietnam, and the jarheads of Desert Storm. Naturally, Hollywood has long been fascinated with the American fighting man, depicting him in such features as the epic The Longest Day, the hardscrabble The Dirty Dozen, and the somber Platoon. Nonetheless, portrayals of American soldiers on film can be little more than thin, if exciting, shadows of the real thing. Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace (2004) takes advantage of digital filmmaking on a small scale, placing the cameras in the midst of a U.S. Army company tasked with securing the streets of Baghdad, Iraq, in 2003 several months after President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations.
The "Gunner Palace" of the film's title actually is a palace, built by Saddam Hussein for one of his wives, but soon after designated party central for Hussein's notoriously unhinged son Uday. After sustaining some damage during the initial American invasion of Baghdad, the opulent building, with its sweeping staircases and high ceilings, was repurposed as headquarters for the U.S. Army's 2/3 Artillery. And that doesn't mean it's now a bunker. Soldiers regularly enjoy the swimming pool and stocked fishing pond, while putting greens have been installed and Uday's immense bedroom (nicknamed "The Love Shack") still sports its ornate furniture and circular bed. It's a relative sea of tranquillity for the gunners of 2/3 Artillery, who regularly patrol the city in daylight and darkness, with a particular concentration on the Adhamiya district, a hotbed of insurgent activity. Judiciously, filmmaker and narrator Michael Tucker says very little about the controversial invasion and occupation of Iraq rather than construct a polemic skewing somewhere between a Michael Moore film and a Sean Penn editorial, he spends nearly all of his time with the men (and few women) who find themselves caught between the Bush Doctrine of preemption and a diverse Arab public that struggles with its long-held distrust of western powers. With a touch of Fox-TV's "Cops" and plenty of freestyle gangsta rap from the G.I.s, the documentary unfolds a barely understood netherworld between Bush policy and the daily body-count, where terror is tempered with humor and fear becomes wry fatalism.
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In a famous speech, Gen. Colin Powell once recalled meeting a Japanese businessman who was just a boy during the final days of World War II. With his nation on the losing end of the war effort, he was prepared to face brutal American soldiers in the streets and was shocked when the G.I.s handed out chocolate to children. Cynics might scoff at such an anecdote, but the same thing can be seen in Gunner Palace while the film surveys the G.I.s of 2/3 Artillery on patrol and enjoying some R&R, Michael Tucker's cameras often observe, without comment, the curious children of Baghdad who approach the soldiers, hoping for a treat or even a brief bit of attention. Vastly over-armed for street-level law enforcement, the gunners are asked to deal with truant boys, raid the homes of suspected insurgents, and even endure a surprise attack by a hostile mob who throw rocks at their Humvees. The film captures the diversity of the Iraqi population in the nation's capital, including those sympathetic to the American powers, the largely neutral Shia majority, and the Sunni neighborhoods that raise a ruckus when the Roughriders patrol at night. It's a diversity that's matched by the Americans themselves. In an era when race-baiting still taints national politics, one could argue that the U.S. military is the country's most racially inclusive institution, particularly when the boots hit the sand and whether you're black or white matters about as much as if you're from Brooklyn or Tuscaloosa. Young men from all corners of America form a unique bond in the 2/3 Artillery, and it's remarkable that the scrap-metal armor they tack on their Humvees which horrified Americans at home causes them to break out in hysterical, morbid laughter. The gunners live with palpable stress, occasionally leaning on the triggers of their automatic weapons when they think violence is about to erupt. They're also outspoken, at times wondering if patrolling Baghdad and protecting America are the same thing. But barely a one complains, and they take their duties seriously. As one company members notes, when it comes to being a soldier, "Nothing beats it." More than just witnesses to history, the men and women of Gunner Palace are front-line participants, and their spirit under fire is probably the best recruiting tool the U.S. Armed Forces could summon in the wake of enlistment shortfalls.
Palm Pictures' DVD release of Gunner Palace features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a digital video source that has an expected variance of quality never perfect, it nonetheless delivers a verité atmosphere in both audio and visual components, with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround options on board. Unfortunately, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein did not deliver what certainly would have been a valuable commentary track supplements on this DVD edition include 17 additional scenes (with a "play all" feature), three audio-only "Gunner Freesytles" rap outtakes, and the U.S. theatrical trailer. Keep-case.