IF THERE is one image that encapsulates "Gunner Palace," it would be the one of a shirtless American soldier, silhouetted against a waning Iraqi sun in 2004, playing a Jimi Hendrix-styled rendition of the national anthem on his electric guitar. Spec. Stuart Wilf, a stringy, jug-eared boy of 19, knows how important it is to enjoy your downtime. You never know when it's going to be your last.
The image is also plain ugly, filmed with a handheld digital camera. There's no sense of the iconic imagery of, say, "Apocalypse Now," in which a different American war was a "Dante's inferno" playground, a Conradian mystery tour of Sturm und Drang. In "Gunner Palace," Wilf is a virtual blur of grainy pixels as he plucks those strings. There's no romanticism here, even though he's playing in front of a "set" with tremendous Coppola potential: the remains of Uday Hussein's ornate, high-ceilinged palace. This former playa palace of a prince has become the makeshift barracks for the 400 soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment.
The documentary "Gunner Palace" focuses on the 400 artillery soldiers, such as Spec. Tom Susdorf, barracked in a palace once owned by Uday Hussein in Iraq.
Their military mission in Sector 18 has changed from "major combat" to "minor" policing. But this means even more insidious danger. They could be taking care of mundane measures, such as picking up a street orphan wandering around in a glue-sniffing daze. But they could also be suddenly taking cover from hostiles sporting shoulder-fired mortars, breaking down doors of suspected terrorist cells, or taking a wide berth around a deserted trash bag that might contain an IED (improvised explosive device).
"Have you ever fired your weapon?" director-cameraman Michael Tucker asks Wilf.
"Yes. Once. Not on purpose," Wilf says. "Nobody was hurt. It was all right."
But things can change fast.
"Gunner Palace" is not about transforming Iraq into the world's newest democracy (although announcements from Donald Rumsfeld, heard in the narration, carry that mission aloft). No, this film's about something more basic and personal: a video diary about staying alive during an ill-defined, unconventionally dangerous tour of duty. Soldiers express their feelings about this, as well as the American media's lack of attention paid to their grunt lives. But they also talk of their pride at being soldiers and, they hope, becoming combat veterans. Many mug around at parties in and around Uday's swimming pool. One even performs hip-hop wartime poetry.
We also meet the Iraqi allies, the domestic police that U.S. troops are training, and also the ones who help them root out the enemy. These allies have adopted names like "Basil" and Mohammed "Super Cop" Saddam. They might be friends today, we learn, and treacherous tomorrow.
The soldiers don't know what each day is leading to. Neither do we. That's the movie's most salient point: This war doesn't come to a satisfying conclusion. It doesn't stop. Only Tucker's camera does and his decision to return home. Do these soldiers make it? We keep watching and waiting. There's not much more to "Gunner Palace" than that, but it's no different than the soldiers' lot.
GUNNER PALACE (PG-13, 85 minutes) -- Contains violence and obscenity. At AFI Silver Theatre, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema.