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Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Regardless of where you stand on U.S. involvement in Iraq, “our boys” are over there, fighting in our name. They’re doing more than just fighting, of course, which is what this excellent documentary shows.

A Real Palace

Check in on "our boys" in Iraq
Check in on “our boys” in Iraq

“Gunner’s Palace” is the nickname American soldiers gave to a palace in Baghdad that they have taken over. It was built by Saddam Hussein and given to his son Uday. It has high, vaulted ceilings, a circular bed in an opulent room, a swimming pool, putting greens, and a stocked fish pond. The palace has partially destroyed by the war, but much of it still stands.

Co-director Michael Tucker spent several months with the army unit that occupies Gunner’s Palace. Over the course of 85 minutes, he shows us the day-to-day lives of these soldiers.

Work Hard, Play Hard

At work, our boys do lots of things. They patrol the streets of their neighborhood. They train Iraqi replacements. They protect the political leaders trying to put together a government. At night sometimes they go on raids. Sometimes they catch wanted men. Other times they break into the wrong house, point guns at innocent civilians, or blindly accept that some people are “bad guys.”

Whether they should be praised or criticized is up to the viewer. Gunner Palace is commendably apolitical. What comes across on-screen is that they have a job to do and they’re doing it as well as they can, given the circumstances.

At play, our boys do lots of things too. They swim in Uday’s pool. They putt on his greens. They surf the Internet. They play music. They goof around. Some of them freestyle, i.e., they make rap music right on the spot by improvising.

Epperlein and Tucker make much of these freestyle raps. They use them as part of the movie’s soundtrack, and they returns to them as a motif in the film. I’ve heard Tucker say that freestyling is an outlet for these soldiers that allows them to say things they couldn’t say in any other way. But after a second viewing, I’m not sure anybody raps anything too controversial. The most poignant example is just a wish not to be forgotten: “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie”

First Impressions are Often Wrong

My first reaction was that every American citizen should be required to view the film, just so they know what’s happening in our name. If we are going to send our soldiers into harm’s way, we should at least know what it’s like for them.

I was also outraged that I hadn’t seen their story in the news media before. I considered that a major failing of the news that portraits of soldiers like those in Gunner Palace were not front-page material. It should take independent filmmakers, I thought, to tell this story.

After calming down a bit, I realized that what happens in Gunner Palace isn’t newsworthy. The events Epperlein and Tucker captured shape the lives of those involved, but they won’t change the course of history. Nor is the point of the film to be newsy or political. Instead, the film is a portrait of the young men and women in Iraq, doing their jobs in our name. I’m still a bit disheartened that such information isn’t more widely seen, but I see that more as a credit to the filmmakers than a failing of establishment news media.

But even if Gunner Palace is not newsy, it is still an essential movie. If you are an American, I recommend the film to you. And even if you’re not, you might want to see what the young representatives of world’s only superpower are doing in Iraq.

DVD Extras

This DVD includes a small handful of extra features. Some are interesting, but none are as good as the movie itself. There are nine “additional scenes” included (as an extra feature, not cut into the feature). These are more portraits of daily life. One includes a trip to an orphanage. Most are interviews with soldiers. They are interesting on their own; none feel like they should have been included in the feature.

The other major extra feature (which coincides nicely with a recent Newsweek article on soldiers trying to put together a recording from Iraq) is Gunner Freestyles. At a film festival, Tucker said freestyling was an important part of life there, and of his film. On the DVD are several freestyle rhymes, including some that were trimmed or that didn’t make the final cut. These are presented in their entirety, and there is (thankfully) a handy “Play All” option. On their own, they don’t seem as impressive as they do trimmed and sweetened for the feature film, but it’s good to see the raw talent of some of “our boys.”

Picture and Sound

Gunner Palace is, of course, shot on video. Picture quality is as good as can be expected. The videographers clearly know how to use their equipment, and the transfer to DVD is crystal clear, but it’s not film.

Sound quality is surprisingly good. Where the video quality seems to be “as good as can be expected,” no such qualifiers are needed for the soundtrack. In the few places were very good microphones were not possible, subtitles appear. What’s really outstanding is the polished, produced sound of the freestyling soldiers, embellished by the filmmakers.