Survive This

Michael Tucker and Petra Epperleine's documentary, Gunner Palace, is much like one of its central characters, the jittery, foully charismatic psycho-savant Specialist Stuart Wilf, a U.S. soldier from Colorado who finds himself in the hell of “minor combat” in Iraq. The crass 19-year-old wears obscene T-shirts, yuks it up in a Qatari thobe and head covering, and admits to firing his gun into a building, not sure if said building was inhabited. But he also has the burned-out eyes of someone who lives with omnipresent fear and uncertainty, and yet finds himself feted in Time magazine's “Person of the Year” tribute to the American soldier.

Like the live-wire Wilf himself, Gunner Palace is half idiotic and half brilliant; by dint of some of the most incompetent editing in recent memory, the film has created an unforgettable glimpse into the mayhem that U.S. troops face every day in Iraq.

Gunner Palace is the product of the several months Tucker spent in 2003 and 2004 with the U.S. Army's 2-3 Field Artillery Division, some 400 men and women quartered in the bombed-out remains of Uday Hussein's rococo pleasure palace in Baghdad. Although the film is billed as a story of the war told from the “ground up,” Gunner Palace is obsessed with the meta-narrative of the war.

“Most of us don't see this on the news anymore,” says Tucker, in a dog-tired voice-over reminiscent of Martin Sheen's “Saigon … shit” tone in Apocalypse Now. The camera lingers on frightened men running in the streets, gunfire popping in the distance. “We have reality TV instead -- Joe Millionaire … Survivor. Well, survive this -- a year in Baghdad without changing the channel.”

Even as it disavows those reality-TV conventions, though, Tucker and the soldiers he films can't seem to get away from them; arrests of Iraqis smack of footage from Cops, the soldiers' confessionals of The Real World. The troops are continually performing -- stunning spoken-word and rap montages, Wilf ripping through Kill 'Em All-era Metallica and a faux-Hendrix version of the national anthem. They seem to have a black-humored hyperawareness of themselves as performers and actors in an often absurd drama, scripted by someone else. And so Gunner Palace offers them a chance to try to seize control of the narrative, to convey their own take on the situation to an audience that may have left the theater long ago.

“For y'all, this is just a show,” says one soldier. “But we live in this movie.”

Gunner Palace presents a troubling glimpse into the soldiers' lives -- waving at laughing kids, but then dodging a few rocks from the same pint-sized children; living in fear of a plastic bag, which may contain an explosive device; conducting polite “soft entry” raids on some houses or crashing a car straight through the door. The film has the raw, undigested quality of a video diary, scenes strung together without an overarching narrative, people trooping in and out with little introduction or continuity.

For this reason, Gunner Palace is a smashing success as an experiential work; it makes its audience live through a bit of the unsifted chaos of Baghdad. This doesn't make sense, a viewer will think, before realizing that the soldiers' lives -- governed by circumstance, potential hazard around every corner, death and betrayal at every turn -- don't make much sense to them, either.

But as a film, Gunner Palace is diminished by the cutting of story lines, the context denied to individual soldiers. Chaos of reality reflected by chaos of technique does not always make for good viewing; the haphazard editing sometimes smacks of incompetence rather than ingenuity. When a death occurs midway through the film, audience members may find themselves straining to remember who the soldier was instead of feeling the depth of the loss. Tucker is fond of juxtaposing Bush administration attitudes with the horrific reality on the ground in Iraq, a sort of thudding “irony” that does little for his film. Similarly, watching Tucker make coffee in his fancy kitchen as he muses on his privileged life just seems like contempt for his armchair-bound viewers, masked as self-hating reflexivity.

But somehow Tucker has stumbled across a way to make a fascinatingly inconclusive work, one that requires its viewers to puzzle over and be confounded by the complexity of the images he has thrown together. The troops struggle to be soldiers and social workers, frighten crying men with threats of Guantanamo Bay and desperately try to restore civility to a local council, enjoy a dirty and genuine camaraderie with their Iraqi translators even as they may be betrayed by them later.

I don't know what to make of this, Tucker's film seems to say, and that humility is a refreshing, if chaotic, change of pace from the heavy-handed and overly simplistic ideological bulldoggery that often dominates discussion of Iraq.

Tucker has also provided a forum for soldiers to try to transcend the boundaries of administration narratives, CNN coverage, and even the confines of Gunner Palace itself. Although they speak dispiritedly of how audiences may walk away from Gunner Palace and forget them an hour later, the soldiers still try to convey their own stories and opinions.

The story of Stuart Wilf, the inadvertent star of Gunner Palace, provides a painful epilogue about the cost of that amnesia. Wilf got into a car accident the day after arriving home following his tour of duty. He survived, but racked up thousands of dollars in medical bills (as a newly discharged soldier, he was uninsured). Wilf has since applied for coverage under the Department of Veterans Affairs, but he still owes tens of thousands in related fees, a cruel example of the government's inability -- or unwillingness -- to deal with the soldiers it has sent into war.

“Unlike a movie,” Tucker says, “war has no end” -- a commentary, it turns out, on not only Iraq, but home as well.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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