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A wit once observed that war is 99 percent sheer boredom punctuated by 1 percent utter terror. The soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery—the “Gunners”—prove that truism in this documentary on the Iraq War.
It’s 2003. Saddam Hussein is still at large. And American Gunners have taken over a bombed-out palace formerly owned by Uday Hussein, one of Saddam’s murderous sons. It will be their home for the next 410 days. In the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, the soldiers set aside their artillery pieces and become cops, social workers, politicians and even truant officers in the al-Adhamiya section of Baghdad, the last place Saddam Hussein had been seen alive.
Documentary filmmaker Michael Tucker takes his camera along on routine patrols and raids, but he also turns it on the daily life of soldiers fighting monotony and homesickness, and trying to make sense of their little piece of a messy situation.
A wise Marine Corps major I served under once observed, If the men are complaining, you know everything’s all right. It’s when they stop complaining that you know you have a problem. With that thought in mind, viewers should not mistake some apparent cynicism and griping seen onscreen as a sign of disloyalty or incipient mutiny on the part of featured soldiers. All of these soldiers readily obey orders, do their duty and, most impressive, show remarkable patience and compassion toward the Iraqis they encounter, even those whose hostility boils barely beneath the surface.
An Iraqi interpreter says, “God is watching over me, and he’s the best protector on Earth.” An Army chaplain makes a visit to an Iraqi orphanage. A patrol leaders says, “Thank the Lord” after he learns a soldier was not injured by a terrorist bomb. At the memorial service for Lt. Ben Colgan, who was killed in action, a soldier holds a commemorative medal with the lieutenant’s image on one side and John 15:13 on the other: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
Some scenes are set around the al-Hanifeh mosque, and a sequence shows Shiite Muslims celebrating their festival of Ashurah. An American soldier sings in an improvised rap about Iraqi insurgents, “You’ve gotten arrested/you're tryin’ to pray to Allah/because he didn’t bless ya.”
A soldier boastfully shows his laptop computer’s wallpaper image: a sign advertising oral sex for $10. The wall over his bunk has the word “boobs” written on it. A soldier introduces an Iraqi interpreter—a much older man—and says, “We both want to f---. Not each other, though.” An Iraqi man on the street practices his English for the camera, the extent of which seems to be the word “sex.” A soldier gives a young Iraqi interpreter a lesson on how to pick up women, including this advice: “Make sure she’s legal age.”
For a war documentary, the film is remarkably light on observed violence, although there is plenty of talk about it after the fact. A sergeant, giving a tour of Uday’s gutted palace, boasts, “We dropped a bomb on it; now we party in it.” Quick shots show artillery, machine guns, rifles and grenade launchers being fired, but all during training, not combat.
During a raid on a suspected bomb maker’s house, a soldier holds the weapon the man had reached for and tells about how he stopped him: “He was going for this when I punched him in the f---ing face.” (Consider that shooting the man would have been a justified wartime response and you get a sense of the restraint these soldiers show day in and day out.) During another raid, Army Humvees ram through courtyard gates and doors. Soldiers point rifles at a group of people to keep them still, and they aim their weapons at Iraqis during house raids.
A soldier plays a first-person-shooter video game on his computer, and we see him gunning down “enemies” onscreen.
Crude or Profane Language
Gunner Palace features 35-plus uses of the f-word (it’s used in a sexual context, it's combined with “mother" and it's subtitled). There are more than 20 written and spoken s-words. Numerous milder profanities include “d--n” and “h---.” (See the “Conclusion” for a discussion of how a movie with so many obscenities got a PG-13 rating.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Soldiers smoke cigarettes and cigars, as do several Iraqis. The soldiers take a drugged-out Iraqi boy, whom they identify as a habitual glue-sniffer, to see a medic. A soldier complains that they’re not allowed to drink alcohol, and one composes a song on his guitar called “The No-Beer Blues.” That same soldier talks about how his life consisted of drugs and drinking before he joined the Army, and more drinking afterwards while stationed in Germany.
Other Negative Elements
We see an Iraqi National Guard recruit vomit after a particularly tough exercise session. Graffiti near a soldier's bunk reads, “I hate everyone equally.” Rap lyrics, most of which are made up by soldiers, include references to "n-ggers," "fags" and "p---y."
Gunner Palace could easily have become an anti-war documentary, and some have tried to use it for that purpose. Supporting their case is a scene in which a soldier questions the value of the war in Iraq by saying, "I don't think it's worth the death of somebody's family member." Elsewhere, soldiers joke cynically about their vehicles' ineffective, scrap-metal armor.
While some civilians may misread it, as a former Marine I immediately recognized that much of the soldiers' "discontent" is actually gallows humor and is not intended as a criticism of the war; such humor is a generations-old tradition in the armed forces. And I believe director Michael Tucker is being honest when he says he just wants to pay tribute to the Gunners and the duty they perform in Iraq. The result is a warts-and-all portrayal of Army life in a combat zone—the boredom, the fear, the occasional pettiness and, for the lower-ranking soldiers, the sense of being lost in a larger picture they can’t see. Overall, they acquit themselves remarkably well.
As an aside, it’s interesting to see how pop culture has influenced the way we all perceive war and the way soldiers view their daily lives. Onscreen, a soldier makes the point that most Americans are too obsessed with reality TV to pay attention to the real reality going on in Iraq. In his press notes, Tucker wrote, “At times, it didn’t feel like we were making a war documentary. Rather, it was like a fictional movie—driven largely by the cinema of war.”
He asserts that the older soldiers' reference point came from 1970s films such as M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now. (One scene in Gunner Palace is a mock rip-off of a sequence in the latter film, complete with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background.) The next generation of soldiers identified with ‘80s films such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. And “for the teenagers,” Tucker said, “it was Jacka-- Goes to War,” citing the MTV series based on incredibly dangerous and stupid stunts.
The MPAA had originally given Gunner Palace an R rating, chiefly for language, but reversed itself upon appeal, assigning the softer PG-13. While convincing the ratings board to change its mind, Tucker asked, “What does a soldier say when a mortar round hits his compound? You don’t say, ‘Golly.’” True enough, but what about the times when bombs are nowhere to be found? There is no situation in this film remotely close to the circumstance Tucker brought up. Every use of the f-word is during casual banter, sexual joking or in the numerous impromptu rap songs the soldiers perform for the camera.
Another rationale in Tucker’s appeal was that the film portrays real life as soldiers live it, and it is important for young people considering joining the military to get a taste of that. Again, true, but again unconvincing as it relates to rating movies. An R rating would have served that purpose equally well, since teens must be 17 to join the military and need a parent or guardian’s permission before age 18.