The war in Iraq could wind up yielding an image every bit as iconic as that of helicopters buzzing the rice paddies of Vietnam: an American soldier in desert fatigues, cradling a bulky M16, standing tall in the back of a Humvee as it speeds along the roads of Baghdad. That image is repeated, in endless variations, in the documentary Gunner Palace. The soldiers, with their goggles and action-movie attitudes, look awfully butch up there, yet they know that they could hit a roadside bomb at any point. The vision of force, hardware, and a touch of bluster camouflaging a state of high anxiety is a perfect summation of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
It's a symbol, however, that Gunner Palace employs with more than a touch of attitude itself. Michael Tucker, one of the film's codirectors (the other is Petra Epperlein), lived with the 2/3 Field Artillery for two months in 2003, and he serves up vérita e] slices of the regiment's daily lives, the sort that rarely make it onto the news. A soldier snarls a rap lyric into the camera, flashing his gold teeth. Another does a mock dance in Arab robes, and one stands in back of the bombed-out former mansion of Saddam Hussein's son Uday (now christened Gunner Palace), glancing at the swimming pool as he says, ''This is our party site.'' A predawn raid becomes an homage to Cops, as the soldiers break into a house, shouting ''Get down! Get down!'' only to come face to face with...a white-haired old lady and a little girl. ''The sheikh is out gone to Fallujah,'' says Tucker, his voice dripping with irony at a mission that has turned up dust.
Could it be an accident that his narration sounds like a parody of Martin Sheen's dead-man-walking affect in Apocalypse Now? In Gunner Palace, Tucker appears to be working overtime to show us that Iraq has become the 21st-century ''rock & roll war,'' a cauldron of violence and frat-house psychosis. The film's fragmentary structure, though, is suspect. It says that the soldiers find no real meaning in their combat actions, yet Gunner Palace presents the operations we're seeing in so little context, reducing them to a random hash of ''sensational'' moments, that Tucker at times appears to be exploiting the war to create a didactic canvas of manic military unease. His viewpoint shrivels next to that of the recent Frontline documentary A Company of Soldiers, which caught the bone-deep humanity of our forces, even at their most desperate, in a way that this movie never touches.