Grade: B

If you want to get a feel for what American soldiers really experience while serving in Iraq during the “post-war” or “reconstruction” phase of the conflict, this unassuming, fly-on-the-wall documentary by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein is the place to go. “Gunner Palace” is made up of footage that Tucker shot during two trips to Baghdad, the first in September, 2003, and the second in February, 2004. During both he lived with the troops of the 2/3 Field Artillery, also known as “The Gunners,” whose quarters are in the sumptuous, but partially destroyed, Azimiya Palace that once served as Uday Hussein’s weekend party locale. From here the men patrol the streets littered with suspected IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), perform quasi-police duties (like taking in an orphan kid under the influence of drugs) and undertake night raids on houses that may shelter bomb-makers and insurgents, while trying to relieve the constant tension by swimming, golfing, and simply goofing around back in the barracks. Throughout the soldiers comment on their situation, some with idealistic fervor but others with an almost desperately flippant disdain. A few offer their observations in the form of elaborate raps that usually end in dry dismissals about the nature of the struggle they’re trapped in. The soldiers’ words, and Tucker’s in-your-face visuals (accompanied by his soft, nearly deadpan descriptions and queries), are also occasionally interrupted by hopeful messages from Donald Rumsfeld to the troops and equally positive reports from newscasters noting the confidence expressed by military commanders. The contrast with the reality on the ground is often striking, and the dreaded “Q” word may come to mind–especially when the level of violence is shown to have grown appreciably between the earlier visit and the later one.

But “Gunner Palace” isn’t a political tract of the sort that so many documentaries, both on the right and the left, have been over the last year or so. It doesn’t push an agenda so much as nudge you subtly to forego your preconceptions and let the images and words wash over you. And there are two things you’re likely to come away with. One is the messiness of it all–the murkiness of the locale, where friends may not be what they seem and danger can come from the most unexpected quarters. And the other is the character of the soldiers–mostly young, stripped of that sense of invulnerability that’s the province of youth, and naturally inclined to bouts of manic energy as a means of release. Some of them we get to know fairly well–most notably a wild-eyed semi-exhibitionist named Wilf from Colorado, whose cynicism about the whole operation is palpable. And when we learn near the close of the deaths of some of them, it carries real emotional punch.

“Gunner Palace” offers a slice-of-life portrait of the troop experience in Iraq one isn’t going to get on news programs whose coverage is largely limited to patriotic puff pieces and tributes to those who have fallen in battle. It’s a valuable dose of reality about an endeavor which, as one perceptive soldier observes, is too often perceived by those back home more as a source of entertainment than as the dangerous and brutal conflict it actually is.