Friday, March 04, 2005

Go see this film

Andrew O'Hehir isn't writing as many movie reviews as he used to since taking the job as Books Editor at salon.com. And that's a pity, because I'd grown accustomed to relying on his judgment before deciding which B grade movie I would see in San Salvador. (Disclosure: he's married to a dear old friend of mine.)

Now he's taken a look at Gunner Palace, which provides a glimpse of the humanity of the American soldier that everyone needs to confront:
As we see it in "Gunner Palace," Iraq is a bad dream from which American soldiers are struggling to awaken. What we witness of the war in this movie confirms all the things we've heard or read about war in general and this war in particular. It's tedious and terrifying; you never know who's a friend or who's an enemy; the streets are full of almost tangible malice; the days are enlivened by black humor and the extraordinary moments of insight that can emerge from young men facing the primordial dilemma of our species: Kill or be killed....

Once you've adjusted to its murky, claustrophobic atmosphere of boredom mixed with dread, what may be most impressive about "Gunner Palace" is how sophisticated and yet how vulnerable the young men fighting this war turn out to be. (There is only one female soldier in the film.) These are not moronic, sadistic, video-game-obsessed high school dropouts, nor are they hardened killing machines. Most of these guys are sharp-eyed and even cynical in their view of what they're doing in Iraq and what it has to do with life back home. They're proud of their unit, their Army, their family and their country, but most of them also understand that they're pawns in a much bigger game.

Tucker and Epperlein have avoided taking a specific political stance, and "Gunner Palace" is likely to shake you up regardless of where you stand on the Iraq conflict. It might not change anyone's mind; after the screening I attended, supporters and opponents of the war ended up screaming at each other in the theater, livid with rage. But that happened, I think, because the film tries to reach across the unbridgeable chasm of our national discourse and force its viewers to face some painful truths. Actually, it's just one truth, but it's pretty damn painful: The men and women serving in Iraq were sucked out of the lower third of the American economy and sent to fight a thankless war, poorly prepared and ill-equipped. Neither the neocon geniuses who sent them there or the antiwar activists who want to pull them out really know them or care about them.

As an opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning, who believed it was both a strategic mistake and a crime against international law, I went into "Gunner Palace" eager to interpret it as a testament to the pointlessness and futility of the whole enterprise. Others will see it differently; Tucker has said that gung-ho audiences in military-base towns have embraced the film as a testament to the courage of American forces in a distant and difficult theater. Both readings of the film may be true, and others besides. I came away from it humbled -- by the bravery and smarts of these soldiers, by their quintessential American good humor, by their willingness to party in the face of disaster. I still think the war they're fighting is dead wrong, but I also think we owe them a tremendous debt, something more than money or gratitude (although those would be good starts). It's a debt we'll almost certainly never pay.

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