Brokedown Palace

It's Friday afternoon, and Michael Tucker has just scored a small victory. Yesterday he screened his documentary, Gunner Palace, for representatives of the Motion Picture Association of America, and won an appeal that will allow the film to be released with a PG-13 rating rather than its original R.

"It's a landmark thing," says the director by phone from Los Angeles. "It's landmark for profanity in America. It's huge. It's the most profane PG-13 movie, ever."

The profanity comes from some of the mouths of the 400 soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit who, in November 2003 when Tucker arrived in Baghdad, were stationed in a bombed-out palace that once belonged to Uday Hussein. Tucker lived with the soldiers for two extended periods. He rode along on raids,

... But outside the pool, the reality is hard to avoid.
waited interminable hours for action, and absorbed the unease that the soldiers felt as they experienced the rise of the post-invasion insurgency. He also captured their coping mechanisms for dealing with beerless frustration, whether communicative or satirically sacrilegious.

Gunner Palace is one of a cluster of cultural signifiers indicating a fundamental shift in how we perceive, and will perceive, the war on Iraq. The recent Frontline special, "A Company of Soldiers," followed the 1/8 Cavalry's Dog Company in November 2004, one year after Tucker embedded himself with the 2/3. The Sand Storm, a one-act play conceived and written by veteran Sean Huze, won critical acclaim when it opened in L.A. last fall and returns soon to the Elephant Asylum Theater for a month-long run, beginning with a March 17 benefit for Operation Truth.

Watch an Exclusive 'Gunner Palace' Clip

Soldiers from the 2/3 Field Artillery Unit conduct a raid on an Iraqi house.

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It's an inevitable shift, as the first generation of the million soldiers who have served and are serving in Iraq have returned to settle back into civilian life, re-adjusting to life on this side as the death toll back in Iraq passes the 1500 mark. When they were in Iraq, they wondered if Americans thought about them at all between episodes of American Idol as they lived through the real Fear Factor on a daily basis. They wondered if anyone back home besides their relatives cared about what they were going through or what their lives were like. Now, America is finding out.

One Man with a Camera

When Michael Tucker first showed up at Gunner Palace, Sadaam Hussein had still not been captured, and members of the 372nd Military Police Battalion had yet to begin snapping digital photos of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. George Bush would make a surprise visit to Baghdad later that month to slice turkey for the troops, but that would to little to relieve the sense of unease that had already set in.

"I always joke that he just came to the gate one day," says John Powers, a captain with the 2/3 who is currently accompanying Tucker on a screening tour. "We had a lot of cameras there, so it wasn't a new thing to have a cameraman with us. Usually we had guys with entire crews."

But Tucker stood out. "He was just one man with a camera," says Powers. "He actually stayed for more than a couple of days. The soldiers saw he wasn't here to get a news clip. A lot of journalists come there with a specific story in mind. I think the guys realized Michael was there to get their story."

Tucker was not a journalist. An itinerant filmmaker, he had won an award in Germany in 1998 for a short film he had made with his wife and Gunner Palace collaborator Petra Epperlein, but his resume was otherwise nondescript. Prior to residing at Uday's crib he had been to Iraq twice, once to make a film about an armored car salesman. He would make two more trips to Baghdad to make his documentary.

While he had no real backing when he first aimed his camera at the soldiers of the 2/3, he also didn't need permission from the Pentagon. "My wife and I, we had the resources to commit to doing this project," says Tucker. "Once we decided to do it we simply went to the army -- at the brigade level, this was not DoD [Department of Defense] level. I was no different than a photojournalist."

Tucker was given carte blanche to film, despite not being able to give specifics about what exactly would happen with the footage. "I said 'I want to go shoot this thing, here's what it is. Here's what I think is going to happen to it. It's not going to be released next week, it's going to come out in months, or even a year, two years.'"

Tucker had heard about the palace from a friend with the Associated Press, and felt fortunate when he arrived to find a diverse mix of people that he felt represented America. "There's were a lot of Hispanics and African Americans," he says. "They were the guys that were put into the roles of cops and social workers. The 2/3 was an incredibly proactive unit. They were door kickers. That's one reason why I picked them."

Tucker also found an urban-jungle atmosphere that exuded the unease that the soldiers felt. "Baghdad is not a beautiful city," he says, although he found the palace to be metaphorically appropriate. "It's kind of decadent and opulent, kind of Gone with the Wind, half-destroyed."

A Man Among Men

It didn't take long for the soldiers to warm up to him. Tucker depicted the soldiers searching for rats as nighttime explosions sounded nearby. He captured the parties at Uday's pool, the interaction between the soldiers and their Iraqi interpreters, the no-knock raids on suspected bombmakers, early rumblings about the lack of armor for the Humvees, and the training of a motley assortment of Iraqi men for national service. He records Sgt. Javorn Drummond and Sgt. Nick Moncrief as they express the views of their brothers-in-arms through freestyle raps that make Eminem and 50 Cent sound irrelevant.

He also centered on one soldier in particular, Stuart Wilf, whom Tucker views as his Yossarian (the subversive protagonist of Joseph Heller's Catch-22). It would be too simple to describe Wilf as a hell-bent, heavy-metal kid with one foot in the grave. His deep-set eyes speak volumes about the situation he has found himself in, staring with a mixture of incredulousness and resolve. "I completely identified with Wilf," says Tucker. "Wilf was me when I was a kid. He's acting out."

Tucker felt so connected to Wilf that he brought him a portable amplifier and wah-pedal as gifts when he returned to the palace on the second trip. Wilf learned "The Star-Spangled Banner" in appreciation, which he plays in the film. At one point Wilf is the shown dancing in native dress -- apparently obtained while on leave in Qatar -- as some sort of ridiculous, speeded-up music plays in the background.

"When I see him now, it feels like he's my little brother," says Tucker. "To a lot of people, he's completely irreverent. At a screening at USC, an audience member asked Tucker if he felt uncomfortable with Wilf's behavior, which could easily be construed as mocking the Iraqis. "I had to tell the audience member that I asked Wilf exactly that question. I said. 'If you were on TV and someone asked you about the scene when you were dressed like a sheik, and you're singing 'Allah akbar,' this very politically incorrect thing, what would you tell them?' And he said 'God told me to do it.' It's like a typical punk-rock answer."

Wilf returned home in October 2004. The last months that he and his unit spent in Iraq after the 2/3 were rotated out of the palace were most hellish. But Wilf has come to symbolize more than the crazy army kid with one foot in the grave. Almost immediately upon return to his Colorado Springs hometown, he got in a serious auto accident in which the engine compartment was pushed into back into the car's interior. He lost part of his intestines, and racked up more than $100,000 in medical bills. He had no transitional insurance upon his discharge. Once the army was done with him, he was on his own.

Dispassionate Observer

Gunner Palace is not a great film, but it is an important film. It's not visionary filmmaking, and the depiction of the raids wouldn't be out of place on Cops. Tucker has been taking criticism from the right for being anti-war, and criticism from the left for glorifying war. He prefers it that way, as long as people are seeing the film. His intent was to record what he saw without casting judgment. He felt disturbed as, during a raid on a home belonging to brothers who were suspected of being bombmakers, he captured the protests of a man who identifies himself as an Iraqi journalist, who is told repeatedly to shut up by the soldiers.

But the purpose of his film was to present the soldier's experience, a goal that he has succeeded in reaching by most accounts. "Of course," he freely admits. "Were we to show the Iraqi side, providing the brothers were indisputably innocent, the soldiers would have come off as fascist thugs."

Paul Rieckhoff, executive director and founder of Operation Truth, agrees on the importance of the film. "Gunner Palace was shot in the same area I was in during the same time," he says. "The unit was about a click north of where I was stationed. I though it was spot on. It was closer to what I experienced than anything else I had seen in a film. I think it's important to give people that understanding of what's going on when the [news] cameras aren't rolling.

"The thing that it really gets very, very well is the unease the soldiers deal with in Iraq. I think people are walking in expecting to see lots of stuff blowing up and people dying. There's not a ton of violence in Gunner Palace. The looming threat of violence and that overwhelming feeling of having a bull's eye on your butt is what most of us will remember about Iraq, and I think Gunner Palace gets that feeling."

Family Snapshot

As important as it is for Americans to see what the soldiers are experiencing, whether they are pro-war or anti-war, hawk or pacifist, it's also incredibly heartening for the soldier's relatives, who get a sense of what life is like in Iraq instead of having to create it in their imaginations. It's important to the soldiers to know that people at least have the choice to discover what their lives were like in Baghdad, Najaf, Fallujah and Basra.

Kathryn Eastburn, contributing editor for the Colorado Springs Independent, attended a Jan. 31 screening that Wilf attended, and interviewed both Wilf and Tucker. Eastburn admits she could not be objective about the film because of her son, a PFC with Special Forces whose whereabouts are often kept secret. "I thought it was fabulous. I have two other teenage sons who are 18 years old, and of course they are very concerned about their brother -- he's only 20. They were really intrigued."

She also appreciated the Jackass-type humor, which she had heard much about from her son. "As a mother of someone over there I found it very comforting to see it. For me the big thing is all the mystery. I don't know what it's like there; I have no idea. And I put my kid on an airplane to go over there. There's a lot of need to now what it looks like, and what's it like to be there. It's bizarre. It's a very bizarre war."

Uncensored, Unfiltered

What's most important, says Tucker, is that message gets through unfiltered. "What the MPAA is there for is to provide parents with warnings and guidance. They really did their job yesterday. We've screened the film all around the country for the last five or six weeks in 15 different cities, and only one person stood up and said 'I was offended by this language, this is outrageous.'"

That was in Tampa, the home of Central Command. "The funny thing is as soon as he said that whole front row of the theater stood up and said 'Go fuck yourself.' The theater was a near riot."

Tucker is settling into a quasi-activist role, though he wouldn't call himself an activist. For now, he doesn't see very far beyond promoting his film, leaving plenty of room to become a vocal proponent of veteran's rights. Being in a position to keep the soldiers' stories in the forefront of America's consciousness, is what's important to him, having quickly become acclimated to the reality that Americans thought they could move on once President Bush donned a flight jacket and declared victory.

"That came pretty fast," he says of the realization he had while Stateside. "In between the two trips I made for the film, I witnessed for myself that no one really cared. Personally, for me and my family, it still is the only story. It's the only thing I think about all day long."

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