Gunner Palace," an intimate portrait of the soldiers serving in 2/3 Field Artillery in Baghdad, defies any expectations you bring to it. There are sights in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's eye-opening documentary that will confirm and confound both right and left. Here are our boys, some fresh out of high school, trained to fight but suddenly put in the position of social workers: cradling babies, assisting at town meetings, tending the wounded. Here they are, long after Bush has appeared before the mission accomplished banner, roar-ing with hysterical laughter as they point out the deficiencies of their armored vehicle: "It'll probably slow down the shrapnel so that it stays in your body instead of going straight through." Who is friend and who is foe? Some local children follow the soldiers worshipfully, like a scene in a World War II movie. But, at night, adults throw stones at them as they patrol the streets. If the country dissolves into civil war, our soldiers know they'll be targeted by every side.
Tucker lived with the unit, known as the gunners, during two separate monthlong periods. What gives the film an extra touch of surrealism is that the unit is stationed in the bombed-out palace of Saddam's playboy son Uday. It's a bizarre oasis in the midst of chaos, complete with putting green, a circular bed in Uday's Love Shack and a swimming pool. Tucker narrates his documentary, declining to push a political agenda. For the most part he lets the soldiers speak for themselves. Or he lets them sing. The rap songs the soldiers perform for the camera are remarkable: "IED's be going off while we out on patrol/Scrap metal be ripping through your f---ing skin and your bones/Got a soldier now and he's trying to put up a fight/But you really knowing he's taken the last breaths of his life." Pop culture is both a means of survival and a reference point. "M*A*S*H" and "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" are always playing in the back of these kids' minds.
"Gunner Palace" isn't a particularly violent movie, though by its end we've heard about the deaths of many of the people in it. But every moment is fraught with the potential for violence. The soldiers are determined to do their jobs, though the reasons for their jobs are murky. "I wish I was defending my country," says one soldier. What he is doing is simple: surviving. The soldiers suspect that the public back home thinks little of them--and doesn't begin to grasp the reality of their lives. "For y'all this is just a show," says SPC Richmond Shaw, "but we live in this movie." The tricky part is, it's not one he's seen before--and he can't guess the ending.