washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Style

Raw Language Of War Will Fall On PG-13 Ears

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page C01

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 24 -- In a rare reversal, members of the board that rates motion pictures decided Thursday to give the new Iraq war documentary "Gunner Palace" a PG-13 instead of an R, agreeing with the filmmakers that the raw language of real American soldiers in Baghdad was appropriate for younger audiences -- who themselves might be considering joining the armed forces.

Last month, the Classification and Ratings Administration gave "Gunner Palace" an R rating, not because of the violence it contains but because of the repeated use of harsh language by members of the 2/3 Field Artillery (who call themselves "gunners"), stationed in a particularly lethal neighborhood in Baghdad after the fall of the city. The palace in the title refers to the soldiers' occupation of one of Uday Hussein's former mansions.

A squad from Charlie Battery in the 2/3 Field Artillery in Baghdad, whose soldiers are featured in "Gunner Palace." Of their raw language, director Michael Tucker says: "This is how soldiers express themselves during war." (Michael Tucker -- Palm Pictures)

"This was not about publicity. It was about doing the right thing," said Michael Tucker, who directed the 85-minute documentary with his wife and producer Petra Epperlein. The film opens in Washington on March 4.

"What does a soldier say when a mortar round hits his compound?" Tucker said. "You don't say 'golly.'

"This is not about the number of times they use [a particular expletive], it's about soldiers," Tucker said. "The cultural landscape is shifting. You need to keep each film in context. There's nothing we should be ashamed of. These are important words. And this is how soldiers express themselves during war."

The ratings board, which was created 37 years ago by Jack Valenti, then head of the Motion Picture Association of America, rates 700 films a year. Since 1968, Valenti said, only 250 films have formally appealed their ratings, and of those, only about one-third have prevailed. "The system works," said Valenti, who has not seen "Gunner Palace." He said the purpose of the rating system is not censorship but a way for parents to make informed decisions about the movies their children see.

Last year, filmmaker Michael Moore asked that the rating for his documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" be changed to a PG-13. The film had been given an R because of "violent and disturbing images" and foul language. Moore's appeal failed.

Similarly, Steven Spielberg's World War II film "Saving Private Ryan" was given an R rating in 1998 for its language and violence. When the movie aired on television on Veterans Day, many stations declined to show it, fearing fines from the Federal Communications Commission.

"Gunner Palace" tells the story of ordinary soldiers in extraordinary situations. They go out on patrol, they arrest Saddam Hussein's former henchmen and other insurgents. They fear roadside bombs, random shootings and nightly mortar attacks.

They also are shown hanging out in the former palace, playing guitars, swimming in the pool, talking about their experiences and perceptions. Some of the soldiers rap for the cameras. They talk about their longing for a cold beer. Others, either frightened or angry or clowning around, use foul language. They are, in the classic sense, ordinary grunts fighting a war. They don't disparage their mission, but they also are not boosters.

"They're trying to survive," said Tucker, who spent months with the gunners. During and after the filming, several of the featured soldiers were wounded or killed.

In the ratings board process, the first group of viewers who rated the film were 12 parents. They screened the movie together and announced their verdict: an R for the repeated use of a particular expletive, among other things.

The makers of "Gunner Palace" appealed that decision Thursday to a different board, composed of movie studio representatives and theater owners, which voted 9 to 3 to change the rating to PG-13.

Andy Robbins, the head of theatrical marketing for Palm Pictures, the film's distributor, said he and Tucker argued that the U.S. military has "unrestricted" access to America's teenagers for recruitment purposes.

Robbins said that a part of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act makes federal funding for schools contingent upon military recruiters having access to students' addresses and phone numbers.

Tucker, who has shown his film in the House and Senate, in screenings hosted by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), says the documentary is not an antiwar polemic but a ground-eye view of American soldiers at war.

During their arguments before the ratings appeal board Thursday, Robbins quoted from a Variety editorial penned by Valenti, who was arguing that "Saving Private Ryan" should be shown on TV in its entirety. Yes, there's some foul language in the war movie, Valenti wrote, "but there is something larger here. It cries out to be seen by every young boy and girl in the land."

"People need to respect the experience of these soldiers," Tucker said. "They can understand that this is reality versus fiction. We need to be adult about this. These are young soldiers in combat. There is an array of emotion. And I think this is appropriate for some teens to see."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company