- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Military families have access to documentation from war zones that may elude Americans without such a personal stake in tours of duty. These less-informed home-front spectators can do some catching up at “Gunner Palace,” an impressionistic, vividly apprehensive and absorbing documentary feature shot on digital video in fall 2003 and winter 2004 by independent filmmaker Michael Tucker.

As a cameraman, Mr. Tucker, an American based in Berlin, sustains a riveting sense of immediacy with soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Field Artillery, quartered at the former Al Azimiyah Palace in Baghdad. It looks vaguely familiar from the earliest network news coverage of the war in Iraq. Once the romping grounds of Uday Hussein, the site was nicknamed Gunner Palace after the U.S. Army took up residence.

Mr. Tucker, embedded with about 10 soldiers in one improvised dormitory, tags along on the daily patrols and occasional forcible entries conducted in a district called Adhamiya, believed to teem with Ba’athist sympathizers. The group’s commander, Lt. Bill Rabena, identifies it as the neighborhood where Saddam Hussein appeared for a famously televised pep rally shortly before he went into hiding.

Apart from a stoning interlude, mortal danger keeps a certain distance from the Tucker vantage point. Casualty reports arrive from other sectors and make a profound impact, but we’re largely surrounded by a sense of menace that remains thick and nerve-jangling yet curiously lived-in and manageable.

Because the soldiers have adjusted to the lurking danger, so must intruders. Mr. Tucker becomes attentive to the gallows humor that appeals to several of his companions. A rifleman named Stuart Wilf almost seems to be exploiting him for stand-up-comedy auditions.

A more reflective mood eventually overshadows the facetious one. Mr. Tucker is a generous listener when the troops want to unburden themselves, and the burden of many comments is that they fear the American public is barely interested in their service.

The metallic click of weapons being checked and rechecked grows so familiar that you feel as if other sounds are beginning to sink in as well, including the blessedly faraway impact of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. It comes as an edifying shock to realize that they have distinctive auditory signatures.

There are more black soldiers in the unit than I’ve encountered in other chronicles of this sort, and the presence of “palace poets” who need to express themselves in rap dignifies the genre. The diminutive Richmond Shaw is particularly eloquent and expresses the movie’s theme in a convenient nutshell: “We live in this war.”

In fact, the seemingly impromptu raps are so effective that they argue for ditching the clamorous numbers Mr. Tucker sometimes uses as background music, especially when he’s overreaching for tension. Mr. Tucker borrows Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” at one point, then extends the “Apocalypse Now” homage by trying to channel Martin Sheen’s fatalistic tone in his own narration.

Although “dated” in some respects, the movie authenticates a number of things that needed further elaboration, especially the sense of American soldiers trying to perform creditably in an often bewildering and potentially treacherous urban setting. More apt than the “Apocalypse Now” allusions might be “Fort Apache, the Bronx” allusions: The unit is on prowl-car duty or community outreach duty more often than not.

***

TITLE: “Gunner Palace”

RATING: PG-13 (Frequent profanity in an authentic combat setting; sustained ominous atmosphere; vivid accounts of battles, injuries and deaths)

CREDITS: Produced, directed and edited by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Photography by Mr. Tucker. Sound mixing by Chris Mueller.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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