The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2005
FEATURE
 
 

Reality On The Screen:
The Iraq War Documentary Gunner Palace
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

When you think about Vietnam War movies, the big Hollywood feature films immediately come to mind: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill, The Green Berets. Or perhaps the lower-budget quality films such as Go Tell the Spartans and 84 Charlie MoPic. As for Vietnam War documentaries, perhaps the best-known is Hearts and Minds, a virulently antiwar, veteran-unfriendly work that received an Academy Award in 1975.

The category of Vietnam War documentaries done during the war is not vast. Most—including The World of Charlie Company (1970), Basic Training (1971), and Vietnam: It’s A Mad War (1964)—appeared on television. The best documentary done during the war, French director Pierre Schoendorffer’s The Anderson Platoon, was shown in theaters. That gritty black-and-white film, which follows Army Lt. Joe Anderson’s 1st Cav platoon in the Central Highlands in 1966, won the feature-length Oscar in 1967.

Which brings us to Gunner Palace, directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s powerful new Iraq War documentary, which opened in theaters the first week of March. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that this film—which offers an intimate look at the men and women of the U.S. Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery Battalion during two months in 2003—is the Anderson Platoon of the Iraq War. Both films focus intently on Americans going about their life-threatening jobs in the middle of a war. Both films  look at highly political wars and make no overt political statements.

What Tucker and Epperlein—a husband and wife team who were embedded with the 2/3rd Artillery—put on film is decidedly not the picture of the war that Americans are exposed to on television or in the newspapers. The filmmakers include some narration, but they tell their story primarily through the voices and actions of the troops on the ground. We see them living and playing in “Gunner Palace,” the sprawling, once-luxurious but bombed-out former digs of Uday Hussein in Baghdad. We see them working with friendly Iraqis to help rebuild the nation. We see them working with orphans and street children. We see them listening to and making music, including profanity-laden rap songs.

The grittier moments of Gunner Palace come when the directors follow the everyday (and sometimes night) operations in which the troops take part in the nerve-searing, often-deadly business of trying to fight the counterinsurgency in Iraq. The camera takes it all in as the Americans patrol Baghdad’s streets and raid suspected insurgents’ houses. The film contains no bloodshed, but the imminent possibility of violent death and dismemberment hangs in the air constantly.

Gunner Palace shows the reality of what’s going on in the war,” Tucker said in a recent interview at VVA national headquarters. “There is a lot of denial that the war is going on.” Gunner Palace, he said, “shows the contrast between what the war planners think and what warriors do.”

Vietnam veterans especially know the importance of not blaming the warrior for the war. The good news is that this film, in offering what could be construed as an antiwar message replete with heavily armed American troops storming suspected terrorists’ houses with women and children cowering in the background, does so without judging the American warriors. They are shown as they are: everyday folks trying to do their jobs to the best of their abilities—with the main goal of coming home alive and in one piece.

As for the rap music, the words of which could have brought the film an R rating: “Every war has its music,” Tucker said. “For this group, it’s rap and hip hop.”

   

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