Our Boys in Baghdad: The Daily Grind at Gunner Palace

Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace began shooting in and around Baghdad four months after victory was declared in the largely American invasion of Iraq. This means that the film itself has now become part of the history of the still-ongoing guerrilla insurgency that keeps nibbling away at both American forces and Iraqi inhabitants. The film’s title refers to the name given to the bombed-out palace once belonging to Uday Hussein, a son of Saddam, by the American soldiers of the 2/3 Field Artillery, whose nickname is the “Gunners.”

Among the Gunners’ duties is patrolling the streets of Baghdad day and night, with the troops encouraged to sound off at every opportunity about their gripes and fears. The tone of the film is skeptical and derisive, in contrast to the confident media pronouncements issuing mostly from the mouth of Donald Rumsfeld. But Gunner Palace is far from being an Iraqi Apocalypse Now. It’s much too early, much too raw and much too haphazardly chaotic to influence hearts and minds one way or another in the current debate on the wisdom or stupidity of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. For instance, footage of American troops enjoying themselves in the luxurious swimming pool-who said Iraq was all bad?-and on the putting greens outside the palace reminds us of Saddam’s corrupt self-indulgence when he was in power. But I may be presumptively premature in using the editorial “we,” since my own political reaction to Gunner Palace-and the war itself-has been very conflicted.

As it happens, I’ve been bemused for over 50 years now by the ironies and paradoxes of America’s “limited” wars, ever since I was drafted into the Army near the end of the Korean War, which coincided not accidentally with the ascension to power of a Republican President (Dwight D. Eisenhower), ending 20 years of Democratic Party rule. The Democratic Party’s downward trajectory continued with Senator Joseph McCarthy blaming President Harry S. Truman and the allegedly Commie-infested Democratic Party for “losing” China to the Communists.

Even after he intervened forcefully to contain the invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea, Truman was denounced by the left for intervening at all, and by the right for not unleashing Gen. Douglas MacArthur beyond the Yalu River, even at the risk of a war with mainland China. The Korean War was labeled “Truman’s War” (so much for bipartisan patriotism). I considered myself fortunate not to have been sent to Korea, but I was on Truman’s side both in intervening and in holding back MacArthur. I thus found myself somewhat isolated between the rabidly anti-war left and the rabidly anti-Communist right.

By the time Vietnam became an intra-party issue in the 60’s, the Democrats had been so traumatized after years of being castigated by the Republicans as “soft” on Communism that they didn’t dare to abandon the Roman Catholic–oriented Diem regime in Saigon. Shortly before he was assassinated in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was approached in Texas by a group of conservatives who told him, as if in jest, that they didn’t mind cute little Caroline Kennedy riding her tricycle on the White House lawn, but they didn’t want her setting American foreign policy-the soft-on-you-know-what charge in sugarcoated form. In a steady, solemn voice, J.F.K. reminded his belligerent critics of the millions of people who would be incinerated in a nuclear war.

Yet Kennedy is said to have signed off on the reported C.I.A.-sponsored coup that led to the assassination of President Diem, who had been discredited by the televised spectacle of self-immolating Buddhist monks, the suicide bombers of their day. This ghoulish practice was mysteriously discontinued once the North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon-or, at least, flaming suicides were no longer televised.

Lyndon B. Johnson was similarly inhibited from disengaging from the Vietnam quagmire and even escalated our involvement. He consequently lost his Presidency to an insurrection of anti-war Democrats, who divided the party sufficiently to elevate Richard Nixon to the Presidency he’d narrowly lost to Kennedy in 1960. The lingering Democratic division over the candidacy of insufficiently dovish Hubert Humphrey contributed to the Republican victory. Then, lo and behold! President Nixon recognized Communist China, which no Democratic President would have dared to do for fear of being smeared with a red brush by the self-righteous Republicans, including Nixon himself.

The recent 2004 election results could be read as a referendum on the Iraq invasion, with John Kerry’s defeat offering a revealing look at the divisive tensions in the Democratic Party between the uncompromising anti-war-for-any-reason faction on the left, and the defensively tougher-minded faction in the center. I happen to prefer another explanation for the Bush victory: his marvelous good luck in having 9/11 as a continuous backdrop for his “war on terror.” Similarly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was lucky in having Pearl Harbor as a means of getting a largely anti-war population swept up into a martial frenzy to satisfy F.D.R.’s long-nurtured objective of stopping Hitler.

By contrast, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson never had the advantage of a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11 to stifle dissent on their wars. Bush 43 was additionally lucky in not having a civilian draft in place to maximize anti-war feeling after he ordered the invasion of Iraq.

When the Vietnam War came along, Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney, among many others, became masters at avoiding the draft, but Mr. Bush’s National Guard caper has backfired on the current crop of Guardsmen now that there is no draft to take up the slack. Recruitment is down, as might be expected, and there’s even talk of enlisting foreign applicants with the promise of eventual citizenship-a scenario eerily reminiscent of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that Gunner Palace in any way depicts Baghdad as a city in massive rebellion against the Americans. The troops often seem bored by the generally uneventful routines in which they’re engaged. A suspicious-looking paper bag on an empty street turns out to be an empty paper bag, not a terrorist’s bomb. Suspected hiding places for terrorists and their weapons are raided, with generally meager results. There are many pleasant encounters with cheerfully curious Iraqi children, but the adult males tend to be surlier and more suspicious. In terms of box-office draw, Gunner Palace has far less violence and killing than is seen on American prime-time television.

And yet the atmosphere on the mostly quiet and deserted streets remains tense and threatening. I have seen much televised footage of Baghdad from a distance, but I have never before been made aware of how large and built-up a city Baghdad is. Gunner Palace records day patrols and night patrols-block by block, intersection by intersection, with helicopters always hovering overhead. Americans are there, embedded, and probably will be for a very long time. The soldiers are generally working-class and lower-middle-class, young men from small towns with a large sprinkling of minorities. There are a few women in the service and, based on the film, there’s little evidence of Iraqi women being accessible to the U.S. troops in the way Vietnamese women were in the Americanized sin city, Saigon. The most depressing incident in the film occurs in the aftermath of a terrorist suicide bombing of a Shiite religious procession: When American Humvees are sent to lend assistance, the Shiite survivors throw rocks at the Americans. One wonders if this failure to communicate will persist into the foreseeable future; the language barrier alone suggests that it will. In the meantime, I remain impressed by the subversive tone of all the rap lyrics pouring out of the unit. But I also remain a yellow-dog Democrat with a paranoid vision of the Republicans as shrewd and wily opportunists, and I fear that only truly bad times will drive them from power. Was it worth it for so many people to have to suffer? This is why I’m happy that movies, not politics, are my métier.

Insider Dealings

Phillip P. Messina’s With Friends Like These (1998), from his own screenplay, has had what is described as “multiple successes in twelve film festivals around the world, garnering top prizes with great reviews and audience raves.” Yet American distributors have, until now, found the movie too “inside” for “average people,” who presumably don’t care to see a comedy about the machinations of the Hollywood scene.

I don’t know if I qualify as an “average person,” but I must confess that I didn’t find With Friends Like These nearly as funny as it strenuously tries to be, from its opening burst of slapstick-a mock mob rub-out routine in a Los Angeles suburban setting-to its closing throwaway line about the studio casting Keanu Reeves in Martin Scorsese’s movie about Al Capone. This final inside joke is supposedly funny in light of the entire movie that precedes it, about the pathetic efforts of four bit-role players to hit the big time by successfully auditioning for the part of Al Capone in a new Martin Scorsese movie.

The real-life Mr. Scorsese even makes a cameo appearance near the end of the film, while, at the beginning, Bill Murray makes a similar appearance, playing not himself but rather a loathsome, gluttonous, big-time producer, Maurice Melnick, who drops in on the anniversary party of one of these wannabes and seems to delight in greeting them with the icy stare of non-recognition as he piles food from the party into his outsized doggy-bag. Mr. Murray does as well as he can with this piece of satirical overkill, but it gets the movie’s mean streak off to an early start.

It’s a shame, really, because there are nice people in the cast who could’ve pulled off a subtler treatment of the Hollywood rat race than Mr. Messina provides. Robert Costanzo plays the biggest loser, Johnny DiMartino, and just a misstep behind him are Adam Arkin as Steve Hersh, David Strathairn as Armand Minetti, and Jon Tenney as Dorian Mastandrea, the only one of the four who adds to his other faults by compulsively cheating on his wife.

Playing the three wives (and one girlfriend) with more charm and panache than their hapless mates are Amy Madigan as Hannah DiMartino, Laura San Giacomo as Joanne Hersh, Elle Macpherson as Samantha Mastandrea and Lauren Tom as Armand’s girlfriend. Beverly D’Angelo takes on the role of the film’s poltergeist as Theresa Carpenter, the casting agent who initiates all the intrigues by confiding to Johnny DiMartino the director’s plan to cast an unknown for the role of Al Capone in his new movie. Johnny blabs to Dorian, and soon the whole community is consumed by a post- Sopranos glaring-and-staring frenzy.

There are more than a few jokes about looking and sounding Sicilian even when one is not Sicilian by birth or temperament. There are also jokes about having or not having been “connected” in some unsavory past. The incessant betrayals and confidences become monotonous after a time, and the film sinks into the familiar swamp of suburban futility. Still, there are far worse flicks around with much wider distribution.

On the Western Front

I must apologize to my readers for not alerting them in time to catch the first entry in “Essential Westerns,” the revelatory 37-film series playing at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) for four weeks, from March 4 to March 31. This first film in question is John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the greatest western of all time and one of the 10 greatest films ever made. If you’ve never seen it, you can probably get it on VHS and DVD. I would recommend every remaining western in the series, since the virtual disappearance of quality adult efforts in the genre (except for the Eastwood- Deadwood exertions) is quite simply a fact of life.

Special attention should be paid to George Stevens’ Shane (1953) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which play Friday, March 11, through Monday, March 14; John Ford’s Seventh Cavalry classics Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) on Tuesday, March 15; Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), Wednesday, June 16; Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960), Thursday, March 17; Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957), two deliriously woman-empowering westerns, showing Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19; John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) and Wagon Master (1950), Tuesday, March 22; King Vidor’s erotic Duel in the Sun (1946) and Henry King’s austere The Gunfighter (1950), Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26; John Ford’s lyrical My Darling Clementine (1946) and William Wellman’s gritty anti-lynch mob film The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Sunday and Monday, March 27 and 28; and the series’ fitting valedictory twilight westerns, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valanc e (1962), showing on Wednesday and Thursday, March 30 and 31.

Our Boys in Baghdad: The Daily Grind at Gunner Palace