In September 2003, just four months after President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq, filmmaker Michael Tucker arrived in Baghdad to chronicle the day-to-day experience of the U.S. soldier in Iraq. Tucker was embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment of the 1st Armored Division, known as "The Gunners," who operated out of Uday Hussein's bombed-out pleasure palace in the most volatile section of the city. "Gunner Palace," the resulting documentary, comes to DVD Tuesday.
What sets "Gunner Palace" apart from other records of war is its focus. While war documentaries traditionally hinge on pivotal battles and the tactical and political implications of major historical events, "Gunner Palace" admirably shuns such grand storytelling in favor of an aspect of the conflict that is mostly absent from television news coverage: the personal experience of American soldiers.
Through candid interviews and ride-alongs, Tucker successfully captures the thoughts, fears and hopes of the soldiers stationed at Gunner Palace.
Even more impressive is the degree to which Tucker keeps his film free of any obvious political agenda. When opinions are offered about America's place in Iraq, they come from the mouths of the soldiers themselves.
And because the soldiers deal with their Iraq experience differently, many opinions are offered. Among the soldiers, pride is as evident as alarm and confusion -- though they all seem to fear that their struggles are going unnoticed back at home.
"Gunner Palace" does suffer from some typical documentary flaws. The film runs slightly longer than it needs to, though its repetitive messages seem congruent with the idea expressed at its conclusion: that, unlike a war movie, the conflict continues when the camera stops filming.
Additionally, Tucker inserts a little too much of himself during numerous voice-overs. These expositions never dilute the messages of the soldiers, but Tucker's monotone impression of Martin Sheen from "Apocalypse Now" seems a little too pulp noir in a film that intends to separate the Hollywood image of war from the reality of the continuing conflict in Iraq.
The DVD presentation lacks variety in its extras but it makes up it for in quality. Several deleted scenes are included that add to the experience of the film. Some, such as a scene of joyful soldiers visiting young children in an orphanage, will leave viewers wondering why those moments were left out of the film. And a scene that catches up with a particularly memorable soldier after he's discharged makes a satisfying epilogue to the film.
The gunners create poignant freestyle raps, and happily, three of them are included as audio tracks. These tracks build on what makes the soldiers' experience so complex.
Amid a deadly conflict that dictates the pattern of the troops' daily lives, they are able to act creatively and, at least in the example of the freestyles, use art to contextualize their experiences.
Palm Pictures; DVD $25.99; PG 13; available Tuesday
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