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George W. Bush’s 2003 boast that major combat is over in Iraq has been widely lampooned, but it’s technically correct. That hardly matters, of course, to the American troops who are still in that country: Mopping up and keeping the peace are no less potentially fatal than larger-scale operations, as the rising American death toll and a new documentary, Gunner Palace, powerfully demonstrate. The Iraq invasion’s real-life version of the classic war movie, with its saturation-bombing forays and army-sized arrows on the map may be over, which is why the first group of embedded journalists are gone. But wife-and-husband filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker still found plenty of activity to film during two one-month stays with the 2/3 Field Artillery.
The “gunners,” many of them absurdly young, aren’t hunkered down in a trench or foxhole. They live in one of Uday Hussein’s palaces, which is admittedly a wreck but does have a pool and a putting green. From this semiluxurious bivouac, they venture out regularly on general patrols or specific missions. Rather than primarily operating artillery, these men (and at least one woman) are now cops, social workers, goodwill ambassadors, counterinsurgency specialists, and trainers of Iraqi security forces—none of which was part of their original mission. It’s dead-serious work, naturally, but laced with absurdity: After supervising a raid that nabs several suspected resisters of the occupation, an American officer instructs the rest of a group of men to “enjoy the rest of your evening.”
Almost cinéma vérité, the film cuts between on- and off-duty, with commentary offered by members of the company who rap. (In Baghdad, gangsta style has found a home that justifies its macho bluster.) Tucker occasionally comments, either with onscreen text or in voice-over, which can be confusing: One ironic reference to “minor combat,” widely attributed to a gunner, seems to come from the filmmaker. Tucker also doesn’t explain how the film was made in two stints, so that an account of his departure segues inexplicably into more footage of tense patrols and late-night raids, the latter rendered in grainy, predominantly orange images.
Tucker restricts himself to noncontroversial musings: his identification with the guys, their anxiety and fatigue, his sadness when a lieutenant is killed. He doesn’t mention that the dead man’s father opposed the war or hint at what awaits the men the gunners send to Abu Ghraib prison, where most of the inmates are apparently innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place when U.S. soldiers conducted a roundup. The director does allow the soldiers some more pointed commentary, notably a facetious presentation of the improvised armor on a still-vulnerable Humvee.
That’s as far as the analysis goes, however. Much like the reports from embedded journalists that hailed the supposed success of the war’s first phase, Gunner Palace is concerned only with the Americans—how young, how normal, how exposed they are. But we’ve already seen plenty of the GI’s view of the Iraq war, which the Pentagon has all along made available to TV audiences as a distraction from larger issues. Gunner Palace is vivid and humane, but it’s not enough.
The Jacket opens during the first Gulf War, with green-tinted video footage that’s even lower-rez than Gunner Palace’s nighttime sequences. It quickly becomes clear, however, that protagonist Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) has an affliction that’s unrelated to the syndrome suffered by some of that little conflict’s veterans: He’s got Twilight Zone disorder, and it’s likely a terminal case.
Before describing Jack’s symptoms, let’s take a moment to imagine the film that The Jacket’s credits suggest. This psychedelic thriller promises to be an upscale Brit-style production, with direction by Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon’s John Maybury, a score by former pop visionary Brian Eno, and a cast that includes The Pianist veteran Brody as well as U.K. superingenue Keira Knightley and difficult-movie regulars Daniel Craig and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Shot largely in Scotland and featuring such signifiers of early-’90s Britain as EMF’s “Unbelievable,” the film should at worst be an endearingly off-kilter simulation of an American B-picture. Yet The Jacket is nothing so distinctive or amusing. Its real auteur might as well be Kris Kristofferson, who appears as the sort of generic villain he’s previously played in Steven Seagal and Mel Gibson vehicles.
After a quick depiction of what Starks calls “the first time I died,” from a battlefield head wound somewhere in Iraq, The Jacket leaps to Vermont, where the dazed ex-soldier hitchhikes aimlessly. He helps a painfully stoned women (Kelly Lynch, in Drugstore Cowboy mode) and her young daughter start their car, then gets a ride from a bad-news type (Brad Renfro). Next thing we know, Jack is in court for killing a cop and being sentenced to an institution for the criminally insane. Elementary fingerprint evidence would seem capable of preventing this verdict, but Jack’s severe memory loss is a ticket to Alpine Grove Hospital, where bad Dr. Becker (Kristofferson) and good Dr. Lorenson (Leigh) vie for his soul.
Becker’s idea of therapy is to shoot Jack full of drugs, strap him into a straitjacket—that’s the jacket, folks—and stick him in a corpse locker. At first, it’s torture, as bad memories flood into Jack’s mind with all the free-form coloration of an Avalon Ballroom light show. But after a tip from fellow inmate Mackenzie (Craig), Jack figures out how to ride the lightning. And it turns out that his visions are actually…a form of time travel. This is the point at which millions of DVD renters will someday push Eject, and I hope they all get the refunds they deserve. Stick with Massy Tadjedin’s increasingly ludicrous script, however, and you’ll see Jack meet Jackie (Knightley), the grown-up version of the girl whose car he once got to start. Alter ego, sex partner, and good-deed-in-waiting, Jackie inspires Jack to use his decade-hopping hallucinations for altruistic purposes. Every time his body goes in the locker, Jack’s consciousness ranges through time doing the sort of cosmic boons that could earn him a half-hour on Oprah.
With Jack split into body and soul and alternate futures in the palm of his astral form’s hand, The Jacket can be a tragedy with a happy ending. That’s not exactly an innovation, though: Hollywood delivers this sort of compromised finale all the time. In fact, the American film machine is as adept at have-it-both-ways conclusions as it is at chewing up classy foreign directors.CP