U.S. Army brass can't be especially eager for audiences to hear the unexpurgated words of the soldiers who are the stars of the documentary Gunner Palace. Or can they? Captured on film during an extended tour of duty in the perilous Adhamiya section of Baghdad, the members of the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit crack sick jokes about inadequately armored Humvees, give shout-outs to their bodily functions, and mouth personal variations on that hoary old parody of a recruitment slogan, "Travel to exotic distant lands, meet exciting people and kill them!" (Oh, for a time when everybody knew those words were meant to be ironic.)
While the company portrait that emerges isn't as emotionally complex as the one depicted in Fahrenheit 9/11, the soldiers' frank language is still salty enough to have earned Gunner Palace an initial "R" rating from the MPAA. That decision, later reversed on appeal, was ludicrous on its face. You can hear worse talk on cable, and you can probably hear it at a gathering of grunts who are subject to no editing process whatsoever. Watching the film, you wonder about the true extent of the "unrestricted" access that filmmaker Michael Tucker (a former military man himself) enjoyed as his enlistee subjects went about their harrowing business of nation-policing and -rebuilding. Is it paranoid to be suspicious of the artistic carte blanche he was supposedly granted, given the propaganda windfall the Bush II administration scored with the creation of the "embedded" journalist?
The movie's true coup (so to speak) is to join the Gunners as they inhabit a bombed-out palace that, it's believed, was one of Uday Hussein's stately pleasure domes. The absurdity of their opulent surroundings is lost neither on the soldiers nor Tucker: After a hard day of riding through potentially booby-trapped streets and raiding the homes of suspected insurgents, they can at least relax and unwind by throwing a good old-fashioned pool party. For many of the stressed-out residents of Chez Uday, music is the outlet of choice. Several rap for the camera, and another performs a rudimentary six-string version of "The Star Spangled Banner." Occasionally, the two styles merge in collaborative outpourings of hip-hop metal, creating the impression of a war not only supported but conducted by Clear Channel Communications.
By now, the ominous implications of in-country leisure activities should be obvious to everybody; a mention of suspects being dispatched to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison is practically met with a soundtrack sting of "dum-da-DUM-dum!" Yet the movie holds back from judging its interview subjects. Tucker is close enough to them emotionally and in terms of physical proximity to believe that extreme duress makes the idea of "proper conduct" relative. What good are behavioral absolutes, he suggests, in a place where a plastic bag spotted in the middle of a road can hold up traffic for hours? In the Gunners' Iraq, anything can be an IED, or Improvised Explosive Device. By traveling alongside his doc's heroes as they weather the slings, arrows and bags of modern urban warfare, Tucker builds a trust level that leads to some startling confessions. One soldier, who has previously exhibited a few distinctly antisocial attributes, admits on camera that no military objective is worth the loss of one human life. So much for neocon vindication.
Still, watching Gunner Palace is an oddly hollow experience. Despite the shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy of the footage, the lessons imparted are ones any thinking, feeling individual already knows by heart: Our brave young men and women were sent into a war they were ill prepared to fight, there's no reasonable end in sight, yet we should still bring the troops back home as soon as possible. Even in a wartime atmosphere subject to such stringent information control, such revelations feel stale by the time they've hit theaters. If you're looking for someone to blame for the ongoing redundancy, the responsibility rests far higher up the food chain than Tucker.