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MOVIE REVIEW

A thoughtful, grunt's-eye view of the US Army in Fallujah

Sometimes filmmakers can be rewarded for being in the right place at the wrong time. For ''Occupation: Dreamland," Garrett Scott and Ian Olds followed a group of American soldiers in the Iraqi city of Fallujah during early 2004, several months before the growing insurgency called down the full force of the US military in a pitched battle.

In other words, the directors missed the big story. The portrait they brought back, however, of good-hearted but callow American kids way in over their heads without backup is in many ways the more important document. Like ''Gunner Palace" before it, ''Occupation: Dreamland" is a grunt's-eye view of the current conflict that needs to be seen, regardless of a viewer's political persuasion. It's not perfect, but it doesn't have to be.

A bustling commercial center between Baghdad and the Jordanian border, Fallujah was by January 2004 a nerve center in the Sunni Arab rebellion, with bombings and sniper attacks that were stopping short of full-scale insurrection. For the soldiers of the Army 82d Airborne's Alpha Company, 2d Platoon, life is a surprisingly mundane tour of duty, securing perimeters during council meetings, conducting nighttime raids of suspected insurgents, and maintaining ''public relations" -- i.e., hitting the streets to befriend the locals.

These latter scenes are almost comically sad. The men, dressed in full gear, try their best to put a friendly face on the occupation, but more often than not they smile and respond blankly as exasperated Iraqis beg for a return to normal life, complete with running water, electricity, and an end to looting.

''We're fed up with guns!" explains one man. ''We want to be able to walk down the streets and talk on the phone and say 'Hello, sweetheart!' " The film's own subtitles translate this more carefully than the on-site army translator, which is only one of the soldiers' problems. Watching these uniformed boys speak halting pidgin English to people who are eloquent enough in their own language is enough to make you cringe.

Yet the men are clearly trying their best, and the filmmakers spend enough time in the barracks -- a former Ba'athist facility nicknamed ''Dreamland" -- for individual personalities to emerge. All in their 20s, all undereducated, articulate, and raw, they've joined the Army because their stateside lives have dead-ended. Staff Sergeant Chris Corcione is the most appealing and the most typical.

''I wasn't exactly a model citizen before the Army," he admits, and the film cheekily cuts to old footage of him, longhaired and thrashing on an electric bass in his death-metal band.

As you might expect, they're completely emotionally unprepared to be here -- invading houses at night and taking suspects away with hoods on their heads while wives and children huddle expressionlessly in the halls -- and their reactions vary. One private inveighs against the Republicans at home and is curtly shut down by the staff sergeant: ''We do not do that on camera." Others can't help flipping the situation on its head: ''If this was home in Chicago, I'd be the one running up to the roof with a gun." One soldier says it's not about oil; another says it is. One, originally hopeful and now morally spent, says, ''They don't care about us helping them, so I don't care about helping them."

Here is what the upper echelons of the Army provide, besides orders, ordnance, and food: a PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of reenlistment, an a cappella performance of ''Carolina on My Mind," and a shockingly honest debriefing by an Alpha Company commander who says ''Back yourself up and think about what, exactly, we're securing. We're securing ourselves. So what, exactly, are we protecting? I don't know."

When Frank Capra called his landmark World War II documentary series ''Why We Fight," I doubt he considered ''I don't know" a viable answer.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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