As a critic, my job should not be to interpret the politics of a movie or documentary, but rather to assess how compellingly it presents itself. In the past year there were two films prominently positioned at extreme side of the ideological spectrum (“Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Passion of the Christ”). And their reviews often overshadowed the bottom line: were the movies any good?
A movie like “Gunner Palace” (Palm Pictures) is difficult to write about because its subject matter is the Iraq War, and I must put my politics aside. Surprisingly, “Gunner Palace” doesn’t really take any sides. And this fact makes my job even harder.
The name “Gunner Palace” refers to a bombed-out palace in Baghdad, once a place to party for Uday Hussein, but now home to the “Gunners” of the 2nd and 3rd Field Artillery of the U.S. Army, a rowdy group of soldiers who like to play guitar, bust rhymes and have named their patrols after “Rough Riders” and “Tomb Raiders.” The palace offers the men more than just a place to sleep: it is also equipped with a large pool, a fish-filled lake and a driving range.
The film takes place from September 2003 through February 2004, after the so-called “end of major combat operations.” Goals include quelling the insurgents, training a capable security force made up of Iraqi police and capturing Saddam Hussein. The movie follows the “Gunners” through their everyday lives, which consist of undertaking the first two aforementioned goals and some time for R&R. Soldiers are interviewed, answering questions about life, the war and the Army. A few soldiers that we meet do die, but this is emotionally downplayed.
This film is gritty, intimate and most importantly, real. Interpret that as you will. Particularly admirable is the bravery of not only the soldiers, but also the filmmakers who followed them so closely into the most dangerous situations.
The one caveat, which hopefully will not deter viewers from seeing the film, is that February 2005 seems too limited in scope. Although major combat operations are still “over,” the deadliest single insurgent attack since Hussein’s ouster occurred the day before this writing, adding 120 to a death toll of 1,500 American troops and 16,000 Iraqi civilians. And who knows how the elections would factor in? If one were to go to a movie spanning the most recent months, it might play out very differently.
“Gunner Palace” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday.