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2 reviews, 6 user ratings

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Gunner Palace
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by Jay Seaver

"A bit dry for a war documentary. Of course, 'exciting' would mean dead GIs."
3 stars

They say a lot of things about war. One of my favorites is that it's long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror. There's a lot of the boredom in Gunner Palace, and not so much of the terror. Part of that is just a matter of only being able to put together the footage you shoot, but part is that directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker aren't yet seasoned filmmakers, and though they've got some good film, they don't yet seem to have the skills to make a great movie out of it.

It doesn't help that this movie about American soldiers in Iraq is made and released in contentious times, and isn't quite enough of a straight-ahead, keep the editorializing to ourselves presentation to avoid being a target. It's close, and in fact it's close enough that what looks like the directors' ideology coming through could just be random noise rather than insidious. After all, just because Rumsfeld is a lightning rod for controversy doesn't make playing clips of him speaking automatic criticism.

Still, there is the matter of Tucker's exaggeratedly dry narration. Sure, that may just be how he talks, but it would make him the only person who talks that way. His voice portrays no curiosity, affection, or anger; it's the sort of controlled monotone that puts one in mind of Steven Wright or Ben Stein, comics with whom one associates with irony or mild disdain. Similarly, there are several scenes in the first half of the film which seem like selective editing. Soldiers stopping traffic on a road because an empty bag or box may contain an explosive look silly, not communicating that this could be deadly business.

And we're grateful to not see this demonstrated because, hey, real human beings here. The movie follows a squadron of American soldiers who have taken up residence in a tacky palace Saddam Hussein constructed for one of his sons, but which has taken severe damage from US artillery. Most of the soldiers are personable types, with much more time spent with the noncoms just out of high school than with the officers, who occasionally seem like babysitters, especially when some of the off-duty soldiers are having a party by the relatively-intact swimming pool.

The subjects' youth and apparently cavalier attitude is perhaps what's most striking when watching the movie; it's not hard to look at someone like Specialist Stuart Wilf, a gregarious nineteen-year-old who is constantly cracking wise, and think "our tax dollars are paying for him to carry a gun?" Not that these guys ever come off as something other than competent; but one wants to think of the Army as a professional, well-oiled machine, and these guys have the potential of screwing up, especially when you consider that they're an artillery company being asked to function as police.

One person in our group commented upon the music, which is primarily hip-hop. It struck her as a peculiarly urban-American sound which was out of place in this setting. Which is sort of the point, of course, but more importantly, it reflects these enlisted men. The officer corps may mostly be college graduates, but this is the stuff that's popular with kids. Others expressed surprise that so many soldiers gave travel as the reason they enlisted - people don't really still join the Army to see the world, do they? Well, yeah, if you're seventeen, not currently on a college track, and not on the fashionable side of the bell curve, money-wise, joining up can look pretty appealing.

So, the subjects are cool enough, but the film is still kind of rough. There are more than a few places where the directors deliberately or accidentally insert themselves into circumstances in a way that maybe obscures what they're documenting. Take a sequence where the soldiers are raiding a house, and one of the residents they detain is declaring that he, too, is a journalist. It's a situation where one can't help but think that the troops might have acted differently if there hadn't been a guy with a movie camera following them around (although, in the larger scheme of things, the problem is more likely "not enough cameras" than "skewed perspective"). And there's a truly bizarre segment in the middle, when Tucker goes back home to Germany and watches his daughter play with sparklers. I suppose they need to show that time passes between the first and second halves of the movie, but it comes across as this really odd digression.

Gunner Palace is a decent film, but in many ways as inexperienced as the soldiers who populate it. Still, there aren't many other movies with this kind of access and willingness to let the grunts tell their own story, so you take what you can get.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10495&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/06/05 11:50:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/08/10 Monday Morning Not much tension, nor insights into the war or the individuals featured. Disappointing! 3 stars
7/13/05 Gray I'd say it's a pro soldier anti Bush inc film 5 stars
3/07/05 Todd This movie doesn't preach to the Right or the Left, It just tells the soldiers stories. 5 stars
9/21/04 Mika Hudyma A must see for those who cae about the war. 5 stars
9/15/04 Brian Brockway Very well done and important film. It needs the visceral reality of scenes of the wounded. 5 stars
9/08/04 larry calloway see my review on larrycalloway.com 5 stars
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  04-Mar-2005 (PG-13)
  DVD: 28-Jun-2005



Directed by
  Michael Tucker
  Petra Epperlein

Written by

  Michael Tucker

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