'Gunner Palace' DVD Review ***** 063005

The Work = *****
'Gunner Palace' is simply a great documentary. It is great because it is very narrow in its scope. That may sound contradictory but the strength of 'Gunner Palace' is that it simply follows a group of soldiers stationed in Iraq. The film doesn’t go for a political statement about the war, that is for the viewers to make, and instead it is simply a document of American soldiers in Iraq.

For that, 'Gunner Palace' deserves a lot of recognition. One thought that struck me is that this film was doing the job that our news organizations should be doing. What was the point of all those freaking imbedded journalists we had during the opening days of the Iraq War? They became the main characters when the soldiers and their stories should have been.

Co directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker spent the better part of two years stationed with the soldiers at the bombed out Gunner Palace. What was once the royal palace of one of Saddam Hussein’s sons is now the headquarters for this particular group of American soldiers. (Many rooms have been destroyed by bombs but fortunately the pool remained intact.)

Tucker narrates the film and that really is one of the few nitpicks I had about 'Gunner Palace'. His narration sometimes comes off as pretentious and I couldn’t help but think if there had simply just been onscreen text it might have worked better. Another possibility would be if the narration was done in the third person and read by an actor or soldier. Still most of the time it works and it is, if nothing else, heartfelt.

My other nitpick has to do with a brief sequence in the middle of the film following Tucker as he goes home and faces the dilemma of being home. While I can appreciate that it was a struggle, it is not really what the film was about. It seems out of place and takes away from the story of the soldiers. After all it is not like the soldiers got to go home, at most they got to go on a brief leave, to a near by military location.

Many of the soldiers personalities begin to come through strongly by the end of the film and I suspect that many who watch this will see people who remind them of their young friends. In fact the music in the film is either made by the soldiers or remixed versions of their music. This film is just screaming for a sound track but to the best of my knowledge there is none. I can only hope that at some point they will release an album of music from the film.

Some have accused 'Gunner Palace' of being subversively political, in that there is an agenda and it is not as a-political as it would seem to be. To this I would say that of course there is an agenda and message to the film. To make such a documentary without one would be impossible. In the case of 'Gunner Palace', if there is a message it is to not forget those who are in danger in Iraq. Soldiers show up as faceless casualties in the news and it is important to get at least a glimpse of what they go through. This film gives viewers that glimpse.

DVD = ***

The Look
This film gets a so-so transfer but I suspect that is just what the source material was able to offer. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

The Sound
The soundtrack comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. There are optional English subtitles as well. I listened to the 2.0 track and it sounded good to me. Occasionally dialogue was a bit hard to hear but it was always because of the source and more often than not was subtitled.

The Bonus
A selection of deleted scenes that can be played individually or through a play all feature. These were a nice inclusion and had some neat moments that didn’t make it into the final film. There were also three songs from the film that can be played from a menu. It is too bad there isn’t a montage of stills or footage that play while the songs are listened to. There is a trailer for the film, some trailers for other palm releases and some web links are the end of the features. Here’s where the ball was dropped. A companion cd of music would have been a nice touch, (say as part of a boxed set, maybe?)

Also a follow up documentary with interviews after the film's release would be nice. Even more of a disappointment is the lack of input from the filmmakers. The moment in the film when Tucker goes home is a brief example of his personal experience of making 'Gunner Palace'. That and more moments like it would be perfect for a making of documentary.

All Together = *****
I can’t recommend this film enough. Narrow in focus by design, 'Gunner Palace' gives nothing more than excerpts from days and nights with a group of American soldiers in Iraq. That is the film’s greatest strength as it does the job that our media should be doing. It certainly does not glorify the position the troops are in. (It shows them arresting people who are more than likely innocent as well as those that are most certainly guilty.)

The DVD drops the ball on extra features but I still give this my highest recommendation possible based on the strength of the footage. I certainly am no fan of President Bush and his ilk and did not support the choice to go to war with Iraq but I always support the troops. They are put in increasingly difficult situations and forced to fill a variety of rolls. Sometimes they are police, sometimes they are aid workers and at the same time they must always be on guard as soldiers.

'Gunner Palace' is a must see and those that say it has agenda may be right but all great documentaries do. Whether it is to enlighten someone on a subject, change the viewers’ minds, or teach them the broad history of an event; the strongest ones pick an argument and back it up. Here, I believe the filmmakers just wanted to give a brief snapshot of the troops in Iraq. Highly recommended, a must see.


'Gunner Palace' Links:


Official Website (which has some journal entries from Tucker.)

Copyright 2005 - 2012 Nate Bundy. All rights reserved.