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'Gunner Palace': Warriors at the Pleasure Dome

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page C05

There's no "hi! hi! hee!" in the field artillery these days, particularly in those units like 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery of the 1st Armored Division, which has been deployed to Iraq. It's more of a "Oh, hell, why me?" kind of deal and it's Humvees, not caissons, that roll along.

Yet the kids -- and most of them seem painfully young -- of "Gunner Palace" appear at the same time to be the very best of America: If they curse like soldiers, it's because they are soldiers (as the MPAA wisely acknowledged in reversing this film's rating from an R to a PG-13, despite some salty language) but they are decent, hard-working, imperturbable young men who play and kill well with others.


Spec. Richmond Shaw looks out on the Gunner Palace's swimming pool, where the U.S. soldiers kicked back. (Palm Pictures)

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Filmmaker Michael Tucker and a trusty video camera moved in with the 2/3 and spent weary months with them in the squalid city riven by ambush and random death, as well as gas stations, fast-food joints and the odd traffic jam. He seemed to get a lot more tired and depressed than they did, but that's the nature of youth, isn't it? They are just as chipper at the end of the tour as they were at the beginning, despite their losses and harsh education in the alleys of Baghdad.

To begin with, these young men were frustrated constantly. They had joined to blow things up (who doesn't enjoy blowing things up?) and as gunners -- Army lingo for cannon shooters -- their skills include lobbing 155mm howitzer shells far off into the distant night and turning things into powder. But because the main force fighting was over, their beloved blowing-up-stuff-real-good was no longer in demand, and they were forced to adapt to another mission, which was essentially that of policing an occupied country.

Theirs is not to reason why, theirs but to patrol by Humvee and hope that plastic bag by the roadway doesn't suddenly go boom. As a break from those routine if nerve-racking duties, each night small units of gunners go out and raid, with continually frustrating results. In fact, frustration is one of the keynotes of "Gunner Palace," as Tucker rides on the raids and goes in just behind the entry team to find always (it seems) the same baffled old men, women and kids. Only once on the four or five raids he chronicles does the intelligence pan out and actual results are achieved: Some very nasty RPGs are found and taken off the street so they won't tag a 2/3 Humvee the next day.

But the majority of "Gunner Palace" is set at Gunner Palace, a pleasure dome decreed by no less a figure than the very, very late Uday Hussein as some kind of orgy pit. Uday no longer being around to enjoy it with the bad and beautiful set of Baghdad, 2/3 has moved in, spread out and made the place theirs. They've turned this rococo sex rodeo into a kind of frat house for guys who'd rather be elsewhere but are making the best of it.

The place provides the movie with its signature texture, which is a kind of anarchistic surrealism. The salient architectural wonder of Gunner Palace isn't the dome, smart-bombed into semi-ruin, or the chandeliers and mile-high ceilings, but the swimming pool out back where Uday and his babes took sun after a hard day of torturing Kurds. The kids of 2/3 turn it into a daily pool party, complete with beer, loud music, dogs on the grill and splooshy cannonballs into the aqua to the laughter of all, including the officers, who seem in this army not so much bossmen as high school civics teachers.

It's such a strange cavalcade of imagery: guys in cutoffs and flip-flops and raggedy tees with rude messages, looking for all the world like Sigma Chis at Michigan State, except for the M-16s and body armor. Meanwhile 2/3's rappers -- rap having replaced rock as a culture norm for young GIs -- churn out a background of macho boast cut with poignant loneliness.

Tucker doesn't have much luck in imposing a narrative on these events because, of course, this is a movie about a war, not a war movie. There's no urgent mission or shaped drama building to anything like a climax. It just stops after a while. The film is more of an anthropological essay on the way young Americans relate while they make war, not love, and try to survive in the meantime.

Only one character emerges, a smart young Coloradan named Stuart Wilf, a very funny kid who hasn't let the Army ruin his sense of humor or get in the way of his guitar playing. In fact, it's Wilf who contributes the movie's strangest and yet most resonant image: That's him there in the desert cammies, the Kevlar helmet also wrapped in desert-issue camouflage, a pair of yellow shooting glasses on, only instead of the M-249 light machine gun we've grown accustomed to see him carry, that's a red electric guitar he's got, and he's banging out a lick to drive the devil down, and having a hell of a good time.

Gunner Palace (86 minutes long, at Landmark's E Street, AFI Silver and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated PG-13, though it contains intense and graphic swearing.


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