It's a scene out of a Michael Moore movie: American soldiers, holed up in one of Uday Hussein's notorious pleasure palaces, cannonball into his swimming pool, set up a driving range on his spacious grounds, and luxuriate on the circular mattress in the master bedroom. The immediate impression is one of extreme decadence, as if Uday's legacy hadn't passed with his death, but merely changed its face. However, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's fine documentary Gunner Palace doesn't pass judgment on the leisure activities of the men and women who risk their necks patrolling a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad. As perhaps the least polemical documentary of the post-9/11 wave, the film aligns itself wholly with the soldiers' point of view, and gives them a distinct voice that's too often overdubbed by politicians and pundits.
Patched together from footage Tucker shot during four extended visits to Baghdad, from June 2003 to February 2004, Gunner Palace sacrifices cohesiveness in favor of brief, punchy impressions of the daily grind. A few strong personalities emerge, but Tucker and Epperlein are more interested in capturing the uneasy tenor of a soldier's life, with lazy stretches of downtime punctuated by mortar blasts or nervous sessions on patrol. While Uday's palace offers some unique extracurricular benefits, the 400 troops of Gunner Battalion are stationed in Adhamiya, one of the city's most dangerous hotbeds of insurgent resistance. For much of the day, they're on the lookout for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), which could be housed in any of the random garbage that litters the city streets. At night, they participate in harrowing raids on suspected weapons-makers, insurgent financiers, and Baathist officials.
Save for a seasoned commander, the unit is composed mostly of young clowns and poets from disadvantaged backgrounds, many from small towns where joining the Army is the only appealing option available. The common sentiment among this diverse group is that the people back home have no idea what they're going through—and what's worse, they don't care. As one of several resident rappers barks to the camera: "For ya'll this is just a show / But we live in this movie." Tucker and Epperlein layer the action with optimistic updates from Armed Forces Radio, but the Iraqi cause holds little resonance for the palace-dwellers, and President Bush's name never enters the conversation. For the soldiers, it's about living to see the next day and living with the things they see, and Gunner Palace honors their perspective like no other Iraq documentary has to date.