Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre
Michael Tucker's heard plenty of criticisms leveled at his movie Gunner Palace, but one never ceases to amaze him. Apparently, his war documentary about the Iraqi occupation isn't violent enough.
"Not violent enough?" Tucker barks in a telephone interview from New York, where he's landed on his current promotion tour. "I tell people, it's violence soup. Violence over there is like weather. You're in the middle of it. When there's a mortar attack, nobody flinches." He tells the story of a soldier who was in the toilet when a shell exploded the wall beside him and a nearby washing machine. Anyone in the area could have been killed, Tucker says, "but they were madder about the washer."
Indeed, one of the haunting things about Gunner Palace, Tucker and Petra Epperlein's extraordinary account of two months with the 2/3 Field Artillery in a Baghdad hot zone, is a sense of constant threat that's almost entirely offscreen: in routine gunfire that may be either armed insurgents or wedding-party revelers, in distant explosions at daybreak. So common is the weapons fire, Tucker says, that he "slept through a couple of car bombings."
Tucker went to Iraq in 2003, planning to make a film about the security business in post-invasion Baghdad. But he was struck by the way media interest faded as the occupation dragged on. In October 2003, he was embedded for a month with 400 soldiers from the 2/3 stationed in Adhamiya, an insurgent-ridden section of Baghdad. By a fluke, they ended up in an unlikely oasis: the bombed-out "love shack" of Uday Hussein, an absurdly luxurious mansion outfitted with a swimming pool and putting green.
Tucker says he got the soldiers' trust by being a constant, unthreatening presence. "I expressed good intentions," he recalls, "and I told them it was important to keep everything in context, good or bad." That meant Tucker's camera was rolling when the 2/3 smashed a Humvee into a houseful of sympathetic Iraqis. "There was a little girl in the bathroom," he says, "and I thought, this is totally out of control." But he was also there to record the daily danger of crudely rigged explosive devices and genuine hostiles.
The movie juxtaposes pool parties and peacekeeping missions. The effect is less war drama than a kind of surreal, gallows-humored Cops episode, where America's roughest, toughest fighting men must serve as truant officers for some glue-sniffing kid. Many of the soldiers Tucker interviews are practically kids themselveslike Stuart Wilf, a 19-year-old cut-up who accidentally fired once into a building. "If there was someone in there," Wilf observes, "they weren't happy."
To war protesters, who argue that culturally ill-equipped ground troops are turning neutral Iraqis against the U.S., Wilf may seem like Exhibit A. To military audiences, however, for whom Tucker has been screening the movie on a nationwide tour, Wilf is just like the loved ones they sent overseasa kid doing a thankless job and hoping he and his buddies get home safe. The sincerity of the soldiers, including one who cradles an emaciated child at an Iraqi orphanage, is in plentiful evidence. It's heartbreaking, then, when Tucker comes back in March 2004 and finds that their morale has been shaken by deaths of close friends, spies in their midst, and no end in sight. "I don't feel like I'm defending my country anymore," one tells Tucker, "and that sucks."
"No matter what you think about the war, it's not going away," explains Tucker, who says he put aside his own political views while making the film. "The question goes beyond, '[Is the war] right or wrong?' It's, 'Are we taking care of these people?' Places like Fort Campbell are exhausted from waitingthey want to see the goalpost." From his tour of military communities, Tucker has seen how differently the war is viewed in the heartland, where dying soldiers aren't just statistics. "In Columbus or Fayetteville, the top story on the news is who died," he adds. "It's not like that everywhere in the country."
Recently, Tucker has been celebrating an upset victory over an implacable foe: the MPAA ratings board. The same board that preserved Meet the Fockers' PG-13 by limiting the number of times a dog could hump slapped Gunner Palace with an R for languagethus making it inaccessible to kids scarcely younger than Wilf. Tucker appealed, and miraculously, he won his PG-13.
"This is reality, not fiction," Tucker says. "This is not Tom Hanks playing soldier. It goes back to Ernie Pyle in World War II: the language tells us who these people are. Tone it down, and you lose their humanity." And if the language helps Gunner Palace start a national dialogue about the war, Michael Tucker will be delighted.
"What's missing is the discussion," he says. "We're like a family that needs some help." He laughs. "America needs group therapy."
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