You can bless Michael Moore for the rise in documentary's mainstream popularity, and curse him, too, for the overlay of pop music, directorial commentary and irony that have become new standards in the genre. Directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker's documentary, Gunner Palace, is indebted to the Moore-ian way.
For two months, Tucker lived with a unit of American soldiers, the 2/3 Field Artillery. The troops lived in "Gunner Palace," the nickname for Saddam Hussein's son Uday's former McMansion, now a mix of bombed-out rubble and, as one officer scoffs, "gaudy" furniture. Like one of the set pieces in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, it's the kind of appropriately bizarre setting meant to convey the absurd extremes of war. In between being blown to bits, the soldiers turn the mansion into a palace of pool parties and putting greens, where the Snapple flows and the Motown blares.
Tucker reports on the routine of the soldiers' anything-but-routine lives: the nighttime raids on suspected insurgents' houses, complete with Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" blasting from Hummer speakers; the patrol of mosques where anti-American messages are broadcast over loudspeakers; and downtime spent playing video games or teaching their Iraqi interpreters how to sweet-talk the ladies.
Gunner Palace is shaped by not only contemporary documentary conventions, but by fictional war films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, which seem to play continuously in the back of Tucker's and the soldiers' minds, as epitomized by the Apocalypse Now-Wagner nod. And Tucker may aim to valorize the real people fighting the war, but his raging hip-hop and heavy metal soundtrack that provides the background to battle often fits his film into a conventional war movie rubric.
Tucker presents the soldiers' experiences as surreal collisions of the ordinary and the nightmarish. Though the soldiers live in a constant state of paranoia, in which every Iraqi is viewed as a potential enemy, this eternal vigilance is often contrasted with a guileless vulnerability. When they aren't dodging rocket-propelled grenades or being pelted with rocks, the soldiers resemble nothing so much as the kids they are, plugged into their laptops and busting out rhymes in the many impromptu rap sessions Tucker includes in the film. Rap becomes as much a subversive critique on the war as the protest rock blaring from Vietnam soldiers' radios. Home is both far away and all around. The soldiers roll their eyes heavenward in ironic ecstasy as they eat hamburgers scored at an Iraqi Burger King.
The juxtaposition of American culture and the sandy desolation of Iraq make for both absurd and oddly affecting moments. At an Iraqi orphanage, a soldier exhibits a strange belief in the righteousness of the American way by offering up a ridiculous SpongeBob doll as a cultural ambassador to an unresponsive little girl. This and other moments prove how difficult it has become for Americans steeped in media culture to see their lives outside of it.
The most difficult aspect of Gunner Palace is how painfully aware these young soldiers are that their real experiences are competing with reality TV and the plentiful, easy comforts of weekends at Wal-Mart.
"For y'all it's just a show. But we live in this movie," says Gunner Palace poet and soldier Richmond Shaw, nimbly breaking down the situation. The soldiers recognize the circularity of their plight even as they decry it. Their grievances are being raised in the film, their desire not to be ignored or forgotten, while at the same time they so often resemble the stock players in the fictionalized accounts of war movies.
Consumed by pop music and black humor, the soldiers are both indoctrinated in the American dream and beginning to painfully reflect on being left outside of it.