“Gunner Palace,” Michael Tucker’s urgent documentary about American soldiers in Iraq, was premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Labor Day weekend. Tucker shot most of it in the last 12 months. So it all takes place after “the end of major combat operations.” This and other AFRTS announcements in the name of Donald Rumsfeld are part of the ironic narrative, like the loudspeakers in M*A*S*H.
Tucker is an unknown, a Seattle boatman who took a community college course in digital film editing, bought an HD camera and set out to see what he could see. He went to Baghdad four times the hard way, without military sanction by armored car from Jordan. For two months late last year he lived with the 2/3 Field Artillery batallion – 400 soldiers stationed in the bombed pleasure palace of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s psychopathic first son.
The soldiers in “Gunner Palace” party at Uday’s swimming pool, practice on his putting green, work at their laptops under his high ceilings. They patrol the streets in this dangerous Aadhamiya district of Baghdad in open Humvees, do raids, make arrests. They rescue abandoned babies, talk to school children, restore a hospital. They take hits from rocks, small arms, mortars, RPG’s, IED’s. They always go fully armed. Sometimes they fight. Some die.
Telluride chooses 18 or 20 new films on the basis of artistry, not politics, and this is not a political movie. Of the many films on the Iraqi war that were available this year, the festival organizers chose only this one, a rare unsolicited submission that stood out, according to festival co-director Tom Luddy.
“Gunner Palace” is a digital movie from a digital war. The men and women of the “Gunner” battallion, as it has been known since its creation in 1812, now carry sophisticated electronic equipment, but beneath the night-vision goggles and the wired helmets, they are still soldiers, aware of the fate of soldiers.
And Tucker captured this. But he did it in a new way. Unlike most documentaries, this one makes the camera part of the action. The soldiers were aware of it, especially when they were at rest in Uday’s obscene palace. They began performing for the camera, and, as Tucker discovered, some from this TV generation were natural actors. Their predominant form was rap, and they said things on camera the guise of rap that they would never say in a serious interview. Like:
Yeah, I notice that my face is aging so quickly/
Cuz I seen more than the average man in his 50s/
I’m 24, I got two kids and a wife/
Having visions of them picturing me out their life.
One soldier played the electric guitar. In a scene with helicopters hovering in an orange sky he stands on a palace wall and does a Jimmy Hendrix-inspired version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
One was beginning a comic routine for the camera when there was an explosion in the background. He turned toward it. He froze. End of joke.
Although Tucker was not “embedded” as a journalist, he had free access to the palace and eventually was trusted enough by the “gunners” to go along on patrols. In the opening scene they are under fire and running.
Tucker, in another innovation for a documentary, narrates in the first person plural – that is, we not they. And his work is a message from the men and women of the 2/3 Field Artillery batallion, a letter home. One soldier looks into the camera and says, “For y’all this is just a show. But we live in this movie.”
Introduced to the Sheridan Opera House audience before the first screening and handed a microphone, Tucker said, “Eight of the people you will see are now dead. . . .” That’s all he could get out. He handed back the microphone.