One of the worst edited documentaries in recent memory, and painful proof that powerful subject matter doesn’t guarantee a powerful film, Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace consists of a series of starts and stops, as Tucker lopes through Baghdad in 2003. He photographs and interviews the American soldiers who occupy Iraq from within Uday Hussein’s bomb-scarred mansion. Luckily for the GIs, the late Mr. Hussein’s Olympic-sized swimming pool remains unscathed by U.S. bombardment: there are several scenes of enlistees sunning themselves on floats, or hosting lavish pool parties in the city they’ve helped to decimate and destabilize.
Tucker evidently hopes that viewers will feel empathy for the soldiers; the filmmaker apparently does, or so he would like us to believe. I have my doubts. There’s a hefty amount of cynicism in Tucker’s directorial choices, from his self-conscious evocations of Apocalypse Now (in voice-overs, Tucker tries to mimic Martin Sheen’s disembodied torpor) to structuring his footage so that the battalion members who are contemplative and well-spoken (there are two of them) receive scant on-screen time, while the film endlessly plays up the crude, foul whackos.
Tucker seems exceptionally smitten by SPC Stuart Wilf, a grossly unattractive, self-reflexive ironist who hails from somewhere in Colorado, somewhere, we’re told in one of Tucker’s Didionesque asides, “near Columbine.” Tucker introduces Wilf as “the new army…an army of one,” and never expounds on those terms. What exactly makes the bug-eyed Wilf “the new army of one”? His youth? His goofiness? His vulgarity? Does the obscene slogan on his sleeveless T-shirt have something to do with it? Tucker stages an entrance for Wilf that’s meant to shock the educated bourgeoisie in the audience, then spends the rest of Gunner Palace sentimentalizing him.
There are a couple of young men in the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit whose words are worth listening to. “We haven’t defended our country in a while,” one 19-year-old veteran calmly states, of the sham he finds himself in. This man has two or three short scenes all to himself. Another fellow—from Hanover, New Hampshire—has even less time to leave an impression, but leave one he does. Why don’t we hear more from these soldiers?
Tucker’s choppy narrative keeps jumping from one event or one person to another, hopscotching over major incidents with little exploration or follow-through. And the filmmaker pulls back every time it appears that something violent is about to happen. At one point, a small herd of Iraqi children playfully run after the armed American soldiers driving down a street. What we’re shown looks innocent enough, but a voice-over (whose?) informs us that some of the children might have thrown rocks at the gunners, and an ominous feeling intrudes. Why does Tucker suddenly freeze the frame and insert one of Gunner Palace’s innumerable rap numbers? Did the soldiers shoot at the defenseless little boys or didn’t they? Tucker raises the specter, then banishes it.
The soldiers, meanwhile, love performing for the camera. They keep rapping and dancing, or strumming guitar, and Tucker, convinced he’s getting great footage, indulges them. The director-producer-photographer-editor takes the gunners’ “freestyle” so seriously that the mind-numbing lyrics to these impromptu raps have been printed in the press kit (and egregiously mislabeled as poetry), presumably so that white, liberal journalists may plumb their depths for profundity. Sample: “Although we’re haunted by Satan/We’re frustration abating/The situation we facing/Not only follow but chasing/Those moving with hatred…”
Tucker, a former Seattle resident now based in Berlin, lived amidst the American soldiers in their “palace” (a frighteningly ugly ruin) off and on from 2003-04. Tucker narrates the movie, yet never establishes who he is or why he’s there, which creates problems when he inserts his presence into the film more than halfway through. Suddenly, he becomes a “character,” and there’s no preparation for this. I don’t know why he and his partner Petra Epperlein (she’s credited as co-editor, co-producer, co-director) thought it necessary to include point-of-view shots of the tastefully appointed kitchen in their home. Tucker stays off-camera, preferring to photograph the gas range or an artfully arranged bowl of oranges. Once back in Germany, Tucker receives word from Baghdad that one of the soldiers he knew, Ben Colgan, has been shot and killed. What might have been a moving remembrance becomes, because of the abysmal editing, an obvious ploy at tugging our heartstrings. If Colgan appeared in any footage prior to this, he said or did nothing to distinguish himself. Whatever Colgan may have been in life, he’s unmemorable within the context of Gunner Palace. Yet how Tucker rhapsodizes! Colgan was a Seattle native, which prompts Tucker to opine, “I knew the mountains he dreamt of,” and I felt like swearing at this unearned, opportunistic, pie-in-the-sky drivel. Tucker then returns to Baghdad, the cinematic transition gracelessly absent.
All sorts of things are wrong with Gunner Palace: the decision to cue “Ride of the Valkyries” on the soundtrack, just in case we haven’t had our fill of Apocalypse Now allusions, then to overlay a freestyle rap on top of Wagner; the decision to show us a drug-addicted orphan boy having a bad trip, then never following up on what happens to him; and the decision to show some officers visiting an orphanage, cooing at and cuddling the babies, then never approaching the issue of how these children, including the sad, malnourished infant held by a Chaplain, became orphans. Did the U.S. military kill the parents?
More offensively, more bizarrely, Tucker gives his soldier roommates a free moral pass when it comes to depicting their own flavor of terrorism. His camera accompanies them on night raids to the homes of “suspects.” The invading Americans never turn up a shard of evidence against the innocents they interrogate, yet most of these Iraqis are “transferred” to Abu Ghraib anyway. Tucker includes an all-too-brief shot of “detainees,” living, breathing human beings piled on top of one another in the back of a Humvee, and it’s impossible not to think of Nazis rounding-up Jews to send to death camps, only here it’s the Co’-Cola swilling, apple pie USA perpetrating atrocities against a brown-skinned people. The filmmakers fail—a staggering failure—to draw a connection between the rapping, guitar diddling enlisted men and the consequence of their actions: shipping persons who have committed no crimes off to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (the new Dachau and Auschwitz) where they’ll be raped and tortured by still more representatives of the most dubious freedom crusade known to the modern world.
If Gunner Palace had been made back in the early 1940s in Germany, and if it had been directed by Leni Riefenstahl, and traced the German soldiers’ mission with unquestioning integrity—it would be denounced and vilified as a scabrous piece of propaganda. But because it’s made by an American too enamored of his subjects to imply even the shadow of a doubt, everything’s (morally) relative. – NPT