Taking the Shots
Frank, Fresh, and Eerily Self-Aware, Gunner Palace Delivers a Different Vision Of Soldiers in Iraq
The skinny young man with the shit-eating grin and automatic weapon is Gunner Palace co-director Michael Tucker’s vision of the new Army: the army of one. This 19-year-old from Monument, Colo.—which Tucker’s voice-over locates “just down the road from Columbine and South Park”—chose the U.S. Armed Forces. He dropped out of high school, re-enrolled, re-dropped out, and enlisted when he was 17. He spent a year in Germany, “partying his ass off” by his account, and was deployed to Iraq. Around the barracks he’s a cutup, dancing around in full sheik regalia after four days in Qatar, or playing monster riffs on an electric guitar. And the first words that come out of his mouth set the casually oddball mood of filming in a forward area: “I am PFC Stuart Wilf and you have my permission to record this. This is my T-shirt and that’s my desktop background.”
The T-shirt reads MY ASS STINKS LIKE SHIT. The desktop photo is an advertisement promising blowjobs $10.
Minutes later, Tucker asks Wilf if he’s ever fired his weapon. “Once,” the young man says. “Not on purpose. But no one was hurt.”
Anthropologists could’ve taught all those embedded journalists (even unofficial ones like Tucker, who shot most of Gunner and co-directed with his wife/editor, Petra Epperlein) one important fact that might’ve improved some of that stilted coverage in early 2003: You’re going to fall in love with your subjects. That’s just a simple human fact of participant observation. Tucker falls for his soldiers during his pair of month-long stints with the 2-3 Field Artillery (known as the “Gunners”) during September 2003 and February 2004. And that undeniable empathy, even with every journalistic effort he makes to remain the unbiased observer (if his voice-over narration were any more dispassionate he’d need to wake up), lends Gunner Palace a restless point of view that fuels its arresting experience.
When Tucker arrives in Iraq, the Gunners have moved into Uday Hussein’s bombed-out Baghdad palace, swimming pool and all. President Bush has long since declared mission accomplished, and the 2-3 soldiers patrol the city, conduct nighttime raids, and perform general police duties (such as getting a glue-sniffing teen boy off the streets). Tucker captures these weeks as the usual everyday unusual smeared together. Curt subtitles identify time and place—“Saturday night, Raid to arrest #89 on the blacklist”—but not big-picture context. Tucker’s days go by as the minutes unwind, Gunner offering snapshot scenes of troop activity: avoiding IEDs (improvised explosion devices), escorting PsyOps, grabbing Burger King at the airport, partying around the pool.
The mood turns right before Tucker returns to the 2-3, after he finds out that one of the Gunners was killed. Tucker and Epperlein don’t, as expected, then turn Gunner into some anti-war platform now that they’ve given it a face. They do something far more obvious yet remarkable: They continue to let the soldiers take the movie wherever they want.
That might sound like a no-brainer, but staying out of the way allows the truly unnerving aspect of this conflict to surface. During one of the pool parties Sgt. James West floats in an inner tube and waxes extemporaneously about the Snapple he’s drinking before going into a spiel about how great the Army is, about how he wanted to join up and go to far-away places and meet other people and be the first kid on his block to get a confirmed kill. He’s paraphrasing a bit in Full Metal Jacket. It’s a bizarrely mundane meta-moment—actual soldier interviewed by actual journalist quoting movie soldier being interviewed by movie journalist—that brings the voyeuristic aspect of war news coverage since Vietnam to a surreal head. The soldiers are being watched, and they all know they’re being watched.
This pervasive awareness of a potential audience gives the documentary a weird sense of limbo, as if the reality of the situation is finished once digested by a viewing audience. A soldier points at the new armor outfitting one of the unit’s Humvees (armor fashioned out of Iraqi scrap metal) and boasts that it will slow shrapnel down enough so that it stays in the body rather than pass cleanly through it, and the camera turns to catch his squad literally falling down laughing. One of the many soldier MCs providing Gunner’s freestyle hip-hip soundtrack raps to the camera, “We try to stick to the script but when the guns start blazing and our friends get hit/ That’s when our hearts start racing and our stomachs get woozy/ ’Cause for y’all it’s just a show but we live in this movie.”
These young men and women not only deal with the day-to-day perils of occupation, but they know that what they do is being scrutinized back at home and around the world. (And this is all before Abu Ghraib.) By Gunner’s close, PFC Wilf’s gallows humor feels less like a teenager’s goofiness than the coping mechanism of a survivor. One soldiers laments to the camera, “The only people who are going to remember this is us.” Not if Gunner Palace has anything to say about that.