Imbedded at the ‘pleasure palace’

Behind-the-scenes documentary focuses on the dangerous lives of young American soldiers in Iraq

PALACE GUARD SPC Tom Susdorf at Gunner Palace in Baghdad, from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s documentary <i>Gunner Palace.</i>

PALACE GUARD SPC Tom Susdorf at Gunner Palace in Baghdad, from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s documentary Gunner Palace.

Documentary directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

An American soldier, in uniform and wearing wraparound sunglasses, speaks directly to the camera about the improvised armor added to his Humvee. The purpose of the armor, he says, is to slow projectiles down enough that they stop inside your body instead of passing clear through. He finishes with an ironic shrug, and the camera keeps rolling as he walks away toward the comrades who’ve been watching this little performance and—some of them—reacting with the pained laughter that comes when someone has dared to make a joking remark about a semi-taboo topic.

This is a signature—but not entirely “typical"—moment in Gunner Palace, the video documentary shot by embedded journalist Michael Tucker in Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004. While it depicts elements of the war in Iraq, with particular focus on the young men and one woman in a combat unit inside Baghdad, Tucker’s film is less a conventional wartime documentary than a televisual hybrid sliding in and out of a variety of modes—reality show, home movie, video performance art, outtakes of a “behind-the-scenes” sort.

The “gunners” are young guys in the 2-3 Field Artillery who have taken up temporary residence in the abandoned Azimiya Palace, “an adult paradise” that once belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s sons. The spectacle of MTV-era young adults hanging out in this semi-dilapidated “pleasure palace"—while negotiating between the realities of the ongoing hostilities and stray moments of relief and relaxation—is one of the defining images in Tucker’s film (co-produced with Petra Epperlein). But the film as a whole stays wary of definitive statements about the Iraq war and concentrates instead on gathering assorted impressions and “moments.”

Tucker accompanies the unit on a number of raids of suspect residences and patrols in hostile neighborhoods. But while erratic mixtures of policing and military actions are a particular point of focus, many of the film’s strongest scenes come out of cameo moments in which individual soldiers comment on violence and destruction—and death—that have taken place recently but offscreen. And in several notable cases, these cameos take the form of brief hip-hop performances by African-American members of the unit.

The film as a whole abstains from making its own polemic for or against the war, but a recurring concern does develop into something approaching a semi-provocative central thesis—the enormous gap between the soldiers’ actual experience and the official versions of the war, from government and mass media alike. Tucker uses ironic juxtaposition of sound and image to make that point when he matches up the pronouncements of Donald Rumsfeld with scenes of specific dangers and conflicts faced by the soldiers. And there are ironies of another sort when he shows us a poolside party at the “pleasure palace” during which the soldiers’ rock band plays “My Girl” for an almost all-male group of revelers.

There are plenty of “telling images” in Gunner Palace, but a great many of them are, in effect, images about images or comments about comments. Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, inadequacies of material and personnel and failures of policy hover hauntingly over specific moments of the film, but Tucker and Epperlein leave it up to us to figure out when and where those things are significant—and how much, as well.