The Pontiff and I watched Gunner Palace the other day. It’s a movie made by independent filmmakers who embedded with the 2/3 Field Artillery (the “Gunners”) of the 1st Armored Division in late 2003 and early 2004. It’s probably one of the earliest and best-known productions about the Iraq war, and I’ve been meaning to get the DVD since its release.
The movie starts off with the film crew’s arrival in Baghdad, and some text overlay stating that “major combat operations” had ended several months before. Then, a pregnant pause; then, predictably, text that says “This is minor combat.” There was then a few minutes of shaky video footage while some guys with AKs took cover and sporadic gunfire echoed nearby. I guess the scene was supposed to be ironic, what with the use of President Bush’s oft-maligned “mission accomplished” words and the term “minor combat,” but frankly, that’s what it was. I hate to sound like a grizzled veteran of dozens of Baghdad street fights – which I’m not – but the scene didn’t look particularly dangerous, considering there was no one visible who was shooting and there was plenty of hard cover around. As for the “minor combat” quip – by the Army’s definition, if full-auto weapons aren’t going cyclic, buildings aren’t getting blown open by tanks, and aircraft aren’t screaming overhead laying down close air support, it’s not really “major” combat.
The opening scene gave both of us a negative feeling about the film that never really went away. It’s unfortunate, because the filmmakers obviously had pretty good access to the Gunners, for a fairly significant amount of time, and could have really done some interesting things with the material.
The most striking thing about the film, which was constantly harping about the dangerous streets of Baghdad and the ever-present possibility of being killed, was that there was absolutely no combat in the movie. It seems incredible that a movie about combat arms soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad would be able to avoid having a single gunfight, explosion, or even a tense standoff, and yet here it is. Despite all of the director’s overbearing voiceovers, I never really got a feeling of tension watching any of the Gunners’ missions. (Probably the best part was when one soldier held up a pistol that he recovered from a house, saying, “The guy was reaching for this when I punched him in his fucking face.”)
Another problem was that the most-filmed soldier, one SPC Wilf, was clearly one of “those guys” – one of the extroverted yet slightly socially incapable guys that seem to have an MTOE slot in every Army unit of company size or larger. He was also obviously hamming it up for the camera, which is to some degree inevitable, but it really seemed like he was primarily showboating, rather than just showing off his natural zaniness. He also made the absurd statement that “I can’t think of any instance where killing a man in a war improved anything.” (I’m paraphrasing here.) Man, too bad about all those Nazis, huh?
The film also ended abruptly – all of a sudden, it was over, showing some scenes of dead soldiers being loaded into an Air Force transport aircraft, with overlay text saying that various people in the film had later been killed. And bizarrely, the scene of the unit returning to its home station in Germany was only a “bonus” scene – not part of the film itself. The film didn’t really tell the story of the Gunners, and never made an attempt to give their mission any context. It was just one FA battalion living in some bombed out place with a pool and playing guitars and rapping.
All told, it was something of a disappointing movie, though it’s still worth watching for one camera’s view of the Iraq war. I’m hoping that A&E’s Combat Diary: The Marines of Lima Company will be better.