STUDIO: Palm Pictures
MSRP: $24.99 RATED: PG-13
RUNNING TIME: 85 Minutes
Deleted Scenes
Three "Gunner Freestyle" audio rap tracks
U.S. Theatrical Trailer

I consider myself politically aware. I try as often as I can to read the New York Times,, The New Republic, and The Atlantic Monthly, despite my conservative leanings. I don’t necessarily think the war in Iraq was or is a good thing for America or for the world, but I’ll be the first in line to try to rebut any Republican hate-fest that ensues from any discussion of the war.

When I first heard about Gunner Palace, I was very intrigued. The concept looked fascinating and I thought it looked great, hopefully a breath of fresh air after Fahrenheit 9/11. I tried very hard to catch in the theaters, especially after reading Devin’s excellent review of it. Unfortunately, the official movie website told me the closest theater to see it in was a good 200 miles from where I live, so I thought I’d give it a pass for the time being. Though it was critically acclaimed, Gunner Palace unfortunately played in very few venues and took in less than a million in box office receipts during its theatrical run.

Now on DVD, it is readily accessible to the masses. Was it worth the wait?

The Flick

Near the end of 2003 and for part of 2004, filmmaker Michael Tucker lived with the 2nd battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment in Iraq for two months, trying his best to capture the day-to-day lives of American soldiers, fighting for a cause that is now becoming ever more elusive. The four hundred soldiers lived in one of Uday Hussein’s bombed-out pleasure palaces, complete with gaudy furniture, high chandeliered ceilings, and bizarre circular beds.

Throughout the film’s slim 87-minute runtime, we’re introduced to a variety of soldiers, from SFC Jessie Potts, the mayor of Gunner Palace, to young 19-year-old SPC Stuart Wilf, fresh out of high school. We also see the daily operations and tasks that these soldiers participate in. They stop traffic in the streets of Baghdad to examine a suspected Improvised Explosive Device (IED), which actually turns out to be a plastic trash bag. They conduct raids on suspects that may be helping the insurgents, financially or otherwise. They visit orphanages and give toys to the local kids. But they also spend time in recreation, joking, playing music, rapping, and swimming in the palace pool. The film is punctuated by sometimes-ironic radio updates from the AFRTS, as well as by soldier testimonials (which are occasionally prompted by Tucker asking pretty insightful questions off camera, e.g. “Do people at home care?”, or “Are you scared when you go out?"). Music and raps written and played by some of the soldiers offer transitions between scenes.

Anybody in the house that broke the "Golden Rule" found themselves in a world of pain…

As the tagline suggests, Gunner Palace shows you what you won’t see on Fox News. Tucker’s access to the operations certainly appeared to be total and it gives a refreshingly frank look at what modern warfare is like, less sanitized than the nightly news and less Hollywood-ized than Black Hawk Down or even Saving Private Ryan. Tucker is there with his camera when the soldiers kick down the door to raid a Sheik’s house, and he’s there inside the Hummer when Iraqi citizens are pelting them with rocks, in protest of their presence. The degree to which Tucker was embedded among these troops and the degree of realism that this lends the film cannot be understated.

It cannot be denied that Gunner Palace serves a very important purpose in aiding our understanding of the Iraq war, as well as hopefully influencing our public and political discourse on the subject. But is Gunner Palace a good film?

Separate from the capturing of the actual footage itself, I asked myself in what other ways the filmmakers’ make their presence obvious in the film. The first one is, of course, Tucker’s voiceover, which I found to be quite irritating. Tucker’s voice is throaty, almost like deep-throated-voiceover-guy-from-movie-trailers throaty, which by itself is fine but when it is coupled with his quasi-melodramatic script and dialogue, the voiceover begins to sound quite cheesy and more importantly, unnecessary. Throughout the film, he reads lines like “Both bombs were meant for us earlier in the day. I feel lucky…real lucky,” and “It looks normal, but the soldiers sense something that I can’t see.” In light of the gravity of the actual circumstances and images, which often speak for themselves in very powerful ways, the voiceover seems too trite. Thankfully, it is somewhat sparse.

After years of failed attempts at getting dates, Stuart still couldn’t figure out what kept the ladies away.

More importantly though, the film itself does not really gel together as a cohesive whole and instead feels like a series of scenes, events, and moments with soldiers that have been hastily cut together. With the exception of SPC Stuart Wilf (who is essentially the film’s star and featured most prominently among all the soldiers), the film wanders from soldier to soldier, never opting to go very much into detail for any one of them. The camera oftentimes cuts away right when you think something interesting is about to happen. The film plods from scene to scene, with very little continuity between them. Only the occasional title card or superimposed text (unhelpfully informing you that it’s "Friday" and/or that you’re at "X Location") allows you to orient yourself. Tucker himself never really explains how/why he’s there or what the timeline is for certain events, which would be excusable except for a bizarre interlude right in the middle of the film where Tucker leaves Iraq and returns home to reflect on how lucky he is to have the life he has. What’s worse is that the voiceover, which could have been used to explain some of these things and give the film some direction and continuity was not used to do so and is thus rendered totally extraneous. Some might make suggest that Tucker was trying to use the film to simulate the feel of the war itself, endless, jarring, and purposeless. I would suggest that it’s plain old sloppy filmmaking.

What I will give Tucker credit for is his depiction of the Iraqi people, whose attitudes towards the soldiers vacillate throughout the film from welcoming adoration to genuine fear to unmitigated hatred. How the Iraqi people’s reaction is so vastly different has served as a source of confusion for the soldiers, for our media, for our President, and for the American people collectively. Do these people love us or hate us? Does the rest of the world love us or hate us? The answer to these questions is not too clear and the film does a great job of portraying this ambiguity.

By far the most effective part of the film is the testimony of the soldiers themselves, their words given while looking at the camera during an interview or in freestyle form with a beatbox in the background. These testimonials are by turns humorous, insightful, frightening, but always moving. Many of these men and women are younger than you and me. For them, a good day is not getting stones thrown at you by hate-filled Iraqi children, or not having an IED blow up near the curb while you’re driving down the street in a truck with your buddies. They are the heroes of this day and age and it serves the public good that this movie provides an outlet for their stories to be heard. They deserve all the praise and admiration they can get.

Is Gunner Palace a good documentary, a solid piece of filmmaking worthy of critical acclaim? Not at all. But is it a film that every American should see? Is it a film that should inform how you and I talk about and view the Iraq war? Is it a film that advances the noble cause of making sure our brave men and women’s stories are heard? You bet your ass.

8.0 out of 10

After thousands of confused callers, Paris Hilton was finally shocked to learn that her cell phone number had been plastered across the computer desktops of men all across the country.

The Look

This film was shot on digital video and the footage is fuzzy and very very grainy. Though this isn’t the highest video-quality you can find, it really gives the film a you-are-there feel, which suits it quite well.

7.0 out of 10

The Noise

There is a 2.0 Stereo option and a 5.1 Surround Sound option included on this DVD. Obviously, the 5.1 gives you a better separation, which especially helps with the dialogue. There is little-to-no surround action going on here. However, dialogue is crisp and clear and the voiceover sounds fine. Volume levels are good and sounds effects are sufficiently loud, though it doesn’t really envelop you. Again, the mix feels appropriate to the source material. This is guerilla filmmaking at its finest, and you wouldn’t be buying/watching this for the high sound/video quality anyway.

7.0 out of 10

Years at an all-male academy can take their toll on both professors and students.

The Goodies

There are 17 Deleted Scenes, totaling around half an hour. More scenes of everyday life, some scenes military activity, but mostly, more interviews with soldiers…basically stuff that could have been included in the film at no cost to its narrative structure (or lack thereof). Good stuff.

Exclusive Gunner Freestyle Rap Audio Tracks are audio-only tracks of some of the young soldiers rapping, set to music. I found them to be incredibly talented, with catchy beats and deep, insightful lyrics, although my knowledge of hip hop probably ranks significantly below Tom Cruise’s knowledge of modern psychiatric practices.

The Weblinks special feature gives you access to more information about the film, should you so desire.

A Theatrical Trailer with other previews are also included.

All in all, this is a good set of special features that gives you more footage of what you saw in the film, which is presumably why you’d be renting/buying this is in the first place. Due to the disjointed nature of the film itself, the fact that these scenes in particular were deleted simultaneously surprises me and doesn’t surprise me, but they could’ve very easily been included in the film without hurting it or its 90-minute running time.

7.8 out of 10

The Artwork

A young, ruddy-faced soldier’s face in the foreground while Uday Hussein’s palace sits photoshopped in the back. Some nice-looking text explaining in concise terms exactly what the contents are of this DVD case. There’s a lot of text on this cover, and I think it could’ve done without the reviews from Leonard Maltin and CBS Radio at the bottom. Otherwise, I think the design is simple and effective.

8.0 out of 10

8.0 out of 10