Film offers perspective, the opportunity to step into another’s shoes,
or to expand our vision beyond the fog of daily life and offer a bird’s
eye view of great events. Michael Tucker’s Iraq documentary Gunner
Palace offers us the war as it looks and feels to the men, women and
children in its immediate grasp. He accomplishes this by checking his
own politics, whatever those may be, at the door.
Tucker lived with 400 soldiers in the 2/3 artillery unit in Iraq for two months beginning in September of 2003, four months after Bush declared an end of “major combat” in Iraq. The unit took over one of Uday Hussein’s pleasure palaces as their base of operations inside Baghdad, renaming the joint “Gunner Palace.” It is from this spectacular, mostly intact remnant of the former regime, complete with swimming pool and putting range (One solider explains: “We dropped a bomb on it and now we party in it.”) that the soldiers depart to patrol the war ravaged city and conduct raids, and to it they return when the work day is done.
The film alternates between the soldiers at the relative safety of the palace and then out on patrol where they trust no one and fear everything, especially the dreaded IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, that threaten to burst out from every paper bag. Off duty the soldiers talk about their lot in life: Why they joined the Army, where they come from, when they get to leave, etc. Several of the black soldiers alternately brag and complain in several poignant rap songs (“I noticed that my face is aging so quickly/ ‘Cause I’ve seen more than your average man in his 50s/ I’m 24, I got two kids and a wife/ Having visions of them picturing me out their life.”) performed to beat boxing and rhythm accompaniments by their comrades.
On tour or nighttime raids their experiences are unlike any other war footage I have seen, as it takes us with them through Baghdad in a war version of COPS. The camera at times becomes merely an expression of the footage as its operator is forced to flee and all we see is the whirling images from what otherwise might be an amateur video. The sounds of machine guns, shouting and running keep us aware of the immediate danger as we see only the chaotic images, unaware of from where the shooting is coming or why. This footage is a fitting image of what may be the most frustrating aspect of this conflict: chaos. No one — even our men in Baghdad — knows what is really happening, whether we are winning or losing, who is the enemy, who or what is right. Watching these soldiers run from unseen shooters, or conducting raids on what may be innocent citizens or armed insurgents is terrifying; we more ably imagine what they’re going through, what one soldier later argues no one can understand and everyone will forget. I found myself ultimately feeling sorry for all involved, the Iraqis and the soldiers. They are all victims of war, terrible for those involved no matter what notions of justice or glory are involved or invoked.
A few times some of the boys movingly express what is beautiful in their experience and how it benefits them compared to the bleak futures that awaiting them at home, in small town America, and how much more they know about different cultures, people, and the world because of their military travels. Nonetheless, contrasting the positive messages of the Bush Administration with the reality of their existence invites the irony, cynicism and mockery the soldiers display in what must be the only way these young men can deal with the extreme situation— acerbic humor and a “smoke em’ if you got em” attitude. The intent of the film isn’t necessarily to criticize the war or the Bush administration, but rather to give us a picture of what the war on the ground is like, and it isn’t pretty.
To paraphrase one soldier, “I don’t think any good, anywhere in history, has ever come from killing…ever. It just isn’t possible.” Whether this is accurate or not, whether any good will come from this war is for pundits, politicians and historians to debate, but what these men and this film portray is that the reality of this war is nothing but horror for most everyone in Iraq.
A footnote on the filmmaking: The film does seem longer than necessary and at times the nature of the photography is as painful as home movies. I think the film could have accomplished its effect in half the time. There is also one particularly odd point in the film when the narrator apparently leaves Iraq, at which point one feels certain the film is ending and then we are without explanation back in Iraq. It is puzzling to the audience and appears as almost tacked on. The website does give an explanation of this odd transition, which is disconcerting, but doesn’t ruin the perspective of the war as the soldiers see it. All in all the film is enlightening and these flaws could be understood as a part of the film’s essence; the limited sightlines of war being what it is documenting.
A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
The Best of Youth, a daunting six and a half hour film, directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, is well worth the time. Originally shot as a mini-series for Italian television, it is now being released here in select cities. Astounding in its ambition and scope, it follows one Italian family through the past four decades, offering a grand perspective of events, disasters, conflicts and ideological shifts.
Two young brothers, Nicola and Matteo Carati, propel the story into action. They set out on a college vacation that becomes a mission to save one girl with a mental illness. The boys free her from an abusive institution and take her back to her father’s home. They discover the world she’s from has no interest in being a part of her salvation. it is up to us to save ourselves not for us to save the world. This new knowledge of the world’s inequities sets the brothers off in divergent attempts to set the world right. Matteo, the more troubled of the two, joins the Italian police while Nicola pursues a wandering bohemian journey that eventually leads him to become a humanistic psychiatrist. Both want to idealistically change the world, albeit in very different ways.
Nicola settles into a more traditional life with wife, child and career while Matteo confronts the wrongs of the world with near total self-abandonment, forgoing love, family and material comfort. Taking us through the 1966 flood in Florence, the student riots in Turin and the conflict with the leftist guerillas of the Red Brigades, the film follows the two brothers as they evolve. They accidentally meet again while assisting in the devastating flood relief and again at the student riots in Turin. The first time they are both there to help; the second time they are on opposing sides politically, but manage not to turn against one another, to remember that they share a family and a birthplace.
The film, in an ingenious way, captures the tumultuous post-WWII period in Italy. Like America, Italy experienced a prosperous decade in the 1960’s while also finding itself culturally divided between those who wanted radical political change and the more traditionally minded. The film traces the development of this split and the trials, tribulations and fortunes of the Carati family as they are caught up in the world’s storms, triumphs and trials, witnessing history in the making.
Over its more than six hours, The Best of Youth is about the conceit of youth: That it is up to us to set the world straight. The film insinuates that all the force and blundering man puts into saving the world is absurd, and favors self-destruction over salvation. The world doesn’t necessarily need saving; it is inherently neutral. The impulse to save it is, generally speaking, noble. History, though, teaches us that such noble ideas too often result in oppression, destruction and a restriction of individual freedoms, as with Italy’s own fascist movement, rooted in the idea of the state taking care of its people.
It is a film to lose oneself in as you come to know this family so well it is almost too soon when it ends. There are a few times when the film leads its audience by the nose and moments when you know from familiarity that something “bad” is about to happen, but instead of being pejoratively predictable, they feel welcome. Like hearing a familiar piece of music, even as the fourth movement approaches and you know the finale is coming, when the notes begin the effect is welcome and powerful all the same. It is a release; a cathartic outpouring at once sorrowful is also joyous.
The filmic conventions the director employs are earned, not intrusive. In offering us a perspective on the competing and conflicting directions Italy has traversed over the past four decades, Giordana’s ultimately optimistic epic doesn’t feel that far from America’s own recent past.