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(2005) (Documentary) (PG-13)

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Documentary: A look at the men and women of the U.S. military as they live and work in the uncertain and dangerous conditions of post-war Iraq.
Plot: Documentary filmmaker Michael Tucker spends several months living with and chronicling the lives of various men and women of the U.S. military as they live in the partially bombed out palace once owned by Uday Hussein and go about their varied and often dangerous duties of keeping the peace and trying to round up suspected terrorists in post-war Iraq.
OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
How ironic, yet disturbingly fitting, that on the morning of the press screening for the documentary "Gunner Palace" -- a look at the men and women of the U.S. military in post-war Iraq -- the largest explosion with the most related deaths since the end of "major" combat would occur. Or that when this review was penned, the death toll for U.S. military personnel there surpassed another sad milestone.

Directed by Michael Tucker -- who occasionally serves as the voice over narrator -- and the never seen or heard Petra Epperlein, the film is named after the partially bombed out palatial estate formerly used by Uday Hussein as his weekend retreat. Now the home for 400 some soldiers, the renamed palace also serves as Tucker's home base as he interviews the military personnel and witnesses the day to day activities in which they must engage, endure and survive.

The point, of course, made by both the filmmakers and the soldiers themselves it that war is indeed hell and certainly is more complicated and dangerous than what appears back home on the TV news or how the far-removed politicians describe and/or glorify the effort.

While Tucker thankfully doesn't pull a Michael Moore and wear his politics all too visibly on his sleeves, it's obvious that he's juxtaposing such positive reports from the political machine with the reality of what's actually occurring and the conditions under which the soldiers must operate.

We hear that they've become policemen, social workers, politicians and even truant officers, and see them dealing with such matters, especially in terms of watching them make raids on the homes of expected or potential terrorists. With an apparently inexpensive digital camera, Tucker follows the soldiers on their daily routines, starting in the fall of 2003 and returning in the spring of 2004 after a brief interlude back stateside.

The effect is somewhat akin to watching a military version of the TV reality show "Cops" with those raids, unexpected encounters and some time for goofing off and/or blowing off some seriously pent-up steam. While the underlying and unifying theme reinforces the war as hell notion, the film can't help but feel episodic as we go from one raid to the next and meet various young men and women from the armed forces.

A few are recurring, such as PFC Stuart Wilf who sees himself as his era's National Anthem-playing Jimi Hendrix. Since only his appearances are accompanied by onscreen titles listing his days left there, one gets the sense that he's the real-life equivalent of the movie grunt who seals his fate by showing his buddies a photo of his girl back home.

I won't say if he makes it or not, but it probably won't come as a surprise that some of the people we meet -- both Americans and Iraqis (the latter serving as interpreters, militia and bounty hunters) -- don't make it through to the end credits.

The film might not add a lot of typical documentary-style insight into its subject, with only a bit of Tucker's narration occasionally accompanying the interviews and you-are-there footage. Yet, the soldiers, who are all too aware of their situation and the incomplete and/or incorrect view of it back home, put it best. In the end, one solemnly explains that they're not fighting for a better Iraq.

Instead, he says, they're simply trying to stay alive, a point common to most wars where the grunts do the deeds -- and often die in the act -- just because they're following orders from someone far removed from the realities of their day to day life and the true experience of war, whether "major" or "minor." "Gunner Palace" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 28, 2005 / Posted March 11, 2005

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