Heroes and Slackers, Locked in the Xbox
By Fernando F. Croce

We talk about the war in Iraq, but what do we see of it? There's a void in the media's presentation of the mess overseas -- so many images arrived ripped from the gut during the Vietnam conflict, yet nowadays snapshots have been laundered, dried, and neatly folded by the time some TV network decides to thrown some air time in their general direction. News fatigue? Editorial gatekeeping? Willful ignorance? Either way, CNN or FOX News (or Michael Moore, for that matter) simply won't do for rounded views of the lamentable Middle East situation. Gunner Palace hardly offers a fuller portrait, though Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary has the advantage of shooting the action through an authentic grunt's-view prism. A digicam essay on the U.S. forces stationed in Baghdad, assembled from Tucker's stay as an independent reporter alongside the soldiers, the movie is nothing if not tenacious about its own objectivity, heroes and slackers stranded side by side in the desert.

Most of the footage is from late 2003, Saddam's mug still plastered in Wanted posters across the nation. Tucker's camera tracks the 2-3 Field Artillery (dubbed the "Gunners"), who've set up camp amid the rubble of Uday Hussein's palatial bachelor pad, equipped with designed areas for swimmin', puttin', fishin', and lovin'. "We dropped a bomb on it, now we party in it," goes the logic. But partying is a privilege for those who manage to make it in one piece after the daily grind of patrolling streets, interminable inspections, the threat of guerilla insurgence and the possibility of every garbage bag housing a bomb. Officially, the war is over, though the "minor combat" of stray machinegun fire and nightly explosions is scarcely reassuring for youngsters fresh out of high school. A sense of danger continually hangs over the images, yet Gunner Palace's biggest confrontation is with a rat crawling around the barracks; most attacks and casualties take place off-camera, described by Tucker's terse, HBO-special narration, though tensions remain high between "liberators" and "natives." Nobody seems to know exactly what the soldiers are doing there.

Stonings and all, the lenses bring out the young soldiers' Beetle Bailey side (often with the middle-aged Iraqi interpreters playing straight men to their clowning), as well as their pop savvy. When not donning mops to mimic imams or doing little skits on how shitty their defense armor is, the fellas are dipping into their pop caldrons to reflect on the unstable land around them. Not surprisingly, movies get mined the most -- one grunt soaking in a pool butchers a line from Full Metal Jacket, while nightly visits to "suspected" houses are pumped up with Apocalypse Now, "Ride of the Valkyries" ringing out of Hummers. In fact, their nocturnal raids provide much of the soldiers' contact with locals, and, if portrayed as far more benign than the Christmas-night home invasion from Fahrenheit 9/11, the passages are among the few to shift the camera's eye, if only for a moment, to an Iraqi point-of-view. The searches rarely root out more than scared old women and children, though that doesn't prevent a couple of brothers, one a journalist, from being shipped off to Abu Ghraib. Indeed, one soldier's anecdote has sinister underpinnings that the film may not have intended, as he recalls reducing prisoners to tears by threatening to send them "off to Cuba."

Throughout, it is the black recruits who display the most awareness of their situation, whether it's Sergeant Robert Beatty's clear-eyed harshness ("You'll forget me by the end") or, in the closest the movie comes to a piece of pop art, the onslaught of impromptu rap lyrics venting the feelings of the pliable humans packaged off to "be all they can be" in a misguided operation. A scene at the orphanage with soldiers surrounded by Iraqi children is heartbreaking because it illustrates a government's brand of cultural imperialism (with a grunt giving a toddler a SpongeBob SquarePants doll) while fleshing out the everyday humanity of the underprivileged people conned into doing so. There are seeds for a deeper, more uncomfortable tragedy at the center of Gunner Palace's insistently depoliticized verité shakiness, though Tucker and Epperlein opt instead for pusillanimous pathos, freeze-frames dropped like exclamation points, and "The Star-Spangled Banner" plucked out of an electric guitar, a la Hendrix, against a dark-orange sunset. Scrubbed off context, the stance can toe perilously close to irresponsible (Rumsfeld's bullshit is called upon, but Bush gets no mention), yet ultimately its messiness becomes the movie's most humane quality by giving the mike over to the brave men and women locked in a Xbox game played by the dicks over at the White House.

*

Back on these shores, Robots is the new CGI bonanza, and, as the title indicates, technology has made it all the way from animated bugs, prehistoric creatures, fish and fairytale characters to its most honest representative, automatons. The coming-of-age and be-yourself morals here come courtesy of young robot Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor), off on a journey to the teeming metropolis of Robot City to finally meet his idol Bigweld (Mel Brooks), sort of a mechanized Oz, only to find the company instead run by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear), a greedy, smarmy Momma's boy -- to foil his plan of taking over the city with an update-heavy campaign, Rodney teams up with a motley of outcasts led (kind of) by motormouth scrounger Fender (Robin Williams, natch). The underclass 'bots revolt against bad capitalism and triumph with... good capitalism? Co-directed by Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha (both of Ice Age), the busy Robots is less of a tinkly eyesore than Shark Tale, even if its sense of awe falls far below the kinetic smarts of The Incredibles. What saves the film from being a product about machines, by machines (and for machines) is the oddly loving humanization of its androidal characters, though most of the energy has apparently gone into making metal look cuddly.


Reviewed March 17, 2005.

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