Gunner Palace, the eponymous primary location in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s engrossing documentary about American soldiers in Iraq, formerly was the home of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Dubbed “Uday’s Love Shack” by its new occupants, it has all the tacky grandeur you’d expect from a megalomaniacal playboy princeling: sumptuous chandeliers, sweeping staircase, bedchamber with a huge circular bed. But the old place has seen better days. Before dispatching its deposed owner, the Americans bombed it, leaving it gaping with unsightly holes and cluttered with debris. As if to add insult to injury, soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery now inhabit the manse, staging impromptu parties and doing backflips into Uday’s pool when they’re not occupied with the deadly serious business of patrolling the surrounding neighborhood of al-Adhamiya, reputedly one of Baghdad’s most dangerous sections.

Uday’s old pad makes a fitting focal point for Gunner Palace not only because it’s real, but also because it’s surreal. Like Citizen Kane‘s Xanadu, it seems constructed as a stage set to flatter one supreme egotist’s grandiose self-image, and its desolation serves as a stark chastisement of all manner of hubristic vanity, a quality that of course is not the exclusive property of the Hussein clan or Middle Eastern tyrants generally.

One senses that the American soldiers at Gunner Palace appreciate the joint’s surreal aspect, since when have soldiers not felt war to be surreal? And besides its value as memento mori cum objective correlative, the place forms an interesting set of oppositions when set against al-Adhamiya: On one side, safety and gaudy royal appointments; on the other, constant danger and the mean streets of Baghdad. No doubt, many American soldiers feel their lives transpire on the fine line between these disparate locales.

Gunner Palace itself treads a fine line between disparate forms of filmmaking, and its triumph is to avoid the twin pitfalls of polemical distortion and unreflective compromise. Tucker spent a couple of extended spells living with and following the soldiers of Gunner Palace: the same position, that is, of those many reporters who were “embedded” with U.S. forces during and after the invasion of Iraq. Yet the feel of his film makes you realize how superficial, self-serving, spuriously “dramatic” and fatally bound up with official propaganda objectives the work of many of those journalists were.

Tucker doesn’t toe the government line, overtly or unconsciously, but neither does he mount a piece of Michael Moore-like agitprop. Of course, in some ways he doesn’t have to. By now no one needs to be told that the Iraq war was a fraud, and though the film was shot mostly in the summer of 2003, only a few months after the invasion, many of the soldiers seemed to understand the hoax even then. “We know we’re not defending our country, never were defending our country,” as one puts it.

But arguing the war and its merits (or lack thereof) doesn’t preoccupy these soldiers, or Tucker. The grunts are simply trying to get by and go home alive, and the filmmaker wants only to follow them and observe their personal and professional odysseys. That’s what he does, and the result is at once clarifying, fascinating and quietly moving.

Remarkably, the film is intensely sympathetic to its subjects–I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so keenly appreciative of soldiers and their lives–and yet this doesn’t come across as unjustifiably sentimental or as necessarily either pro- or anti-war. It is simply human, and humane, and reflective of the circumstances.

In a statement about the film, Tucker explains, “When I returned to the soldiers the second time, I carried with me a newfound understanding that war is defined by suffering. The father of one of the fallen soldiers told me, ‘Let me tell you how I can be so against this war, and so for my son.’ Those words guided the rest of the film. I spent less time shooting and more time listening to these young soldiers and paying attention to their unique experiences and responses to this war. Hearing an explosion at night, I didn’t reach for my camera immediately; instead, I thought of who was out there and just hoped they would make it back to the gate.”

Though it incorporates some interviews with the soldiers and a bit of voice-over narration, the film is mainly shot verite style, with the camera trailing after soldiers as they pursue their duties or enjoy some off-moments, improvising rap songs or strumming guitars. None of this is particularly dramatic. Indeed, it’s all routine, ordinary stuff–the stuff that television edits out–and that’s precisely its value.

Tucker does follow the soldiers as they raid Iraqi homes and round up suspected insurgents, but even this lacks the overheated sound and fury of the way such incidents usually come across in TV news reports. Sure, some of the Iraqis seem scared, but not that scared. On the contrary, most seem to find a bit of security in who their captors are. The soldiers we’re watching are not the goons and trailer trash of Abu Ghraib.

This isn’t to suggest that everything is flattering. One soldier speaks laughingly of seeing six-foot-tall, strongly muscled Iraqi men being reduced to tears on being threatened with deportment to Guantanamo. Another voices the kind of sadly familiar litany that explains how wartime atrocities occur: It’s either him or me, I’m just following orders, etc.

Yet most of these kids are very decent, likable young Americans, and if it’s easy to despise the lies and liars behind a war that is cruelly and unnecessarily costing some of them their lives, this only makes the soldiers themselves more sympathetic. One, after dismissing the validity of the war, goes on to say how proud he will be to go home as a real, honest to goodness combat veteran. How many 19-year-olds can say that? The kid practically glows with pride, and you can’t help but be touched by his ardor.

Such views of war have sources beyond real life, of course. Tucker says, “At times it didn’t feel like we were making a war documentary. Rather it was like a fictional movie driven largely by the cinema of war. For the older guys it was like being in the film M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts for poolside barbecues. For others it was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. You could see it in the way they rode in their HumveesÉ. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War.”

In this context, cinema provides identity, affirmation and common bonds. Television, on other hand, conjures the specters of distance, distaste and disaffection. As good-spirited as these soldiers generally are, there’s one place where they sound bitter, even angry. That’s when they’re asked how Americans back home view their work and sacrifices. Only folks with family members in the military know or care about what they’re going through, they say.

For other Americans, it’s just another show on TV. They quickly get tired of it and change the channel. Don’t want to know about it, don’t want to be disturbed with unpleasant reality. Meanwhile, the kids in the middle of that reality are putting themselves on the line and dying every day. For them, it’s no Survivor or American Idol.

The truth behind that understandable bitterness hints at the paradoxical turnabout in the role of television in American culture since the Vietnam War. Then, TV news coverage put the fighting in the nation’s living rooms, and the audiovisual reality helped turn public opinion against the war. Now, it seems, television serves for little beyond self-induced narcosis and official bamboozlement. It has fallen to cinema to issue the wake-up calls that most Americans still haven’t heard.