Armadillo (Janus Metz 2010) – film review
Out on DVD on Monday 13th June from Soda Pictures, a fascinating, thoughtful documentary (albeit one that doesn’t look or feel like a documentary) about a Danish platoon fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
(Janus Metz, Dan, 2010)
The restyling of war doc dispatches as dramatic combat thriller ought to feel ethically shaky, but it pays off with Dostoevskyian depth
Finally, after all the liberal movies about the War on Terror, this modern-day, 24/7 rolling news conflict, has found its ideal cinematic form in embedded reportage. First there was Restrepo, and now here’s Armadillo, a film which (to U.K. eyes) universalises the campaign by focussing on a platoon of Danes, rather than the more familiar Brits or Americans.
There’s little, initially, to distinguish the Europeans from the standard-issue grunts who populate war movies. They are into porn and video games (in one amazing match cut, a computer screen cuts to the real thing with seamless, ironic precision), mardy when patrols are boring and eager to get stuck in. The platoon is composed of the usual array of hot-heads, jokers and even the sensitive Charlie-Sheen-in-Platoon conscience in mild-mannered Mads.
Think it’s reductive to use fictional avatars for real people? This is a film that blurs the boundary, because it sure as hell doesn’t look like a documentary. The outstanding in-the-field camerawork, shadowing soldiers across enemy territory, is augmented by clever, dramatic colour grading and booming sound design. It’s edited and scored as an action thriller, and even the understandable omissions of events the crew couldn’t make it to are engineered for pathos – notably the sudden cut to a shell-shocked soldier who has just ordered a mortar strike which killed an Afghan child.
There’s a real danger here of the form/content mismatch trivialising the grim reality of war, but Metz displays nerve and thought in assembling a narrative that is punctuated with horrible irony. The titular Armadillo base is barely holding on to its territory, hemmed in by fast, guerrilla insurgency, but it the land doesn’t even feel strategically valuable. What’s important to the ‘peace-keeping’ forces is to win hearts and minds; they are staying simply because, as soon as they leave, the Taliban will take over again. But the Taliban are already there…
So the Danes are locked into a permanently Phyrric victory, as their continued presence further destabilises the region. It’s a thankless cause, as tactics force the Danes to run roughshod over the locals’ recently-ploughed fields, bursting into their homes, inadvertently killing cattle or, worse, relatives. Metz maintains a subplot about Armadillo’s civilian liaison and his interpreter, whose conferences with the locals are at best a mockery and at worst, an insult, as they hand over cash as compensation for shattered lives.
What emerges is a dispassionate, academic vision of ‘help,’ where compassion is overridden by military efficiency. Attempts to make inroads into the community last only until a drone picks up suspicious men wandering across a field – at which point it becomes easier just to blow them up, an event achieved with shocking speed and matter-of-factness. Worse, during a skirmish, several soldiers have to finish off a kill when a grenade attack only wounds the enemy. Pumped-up on adrenaline and propaganda, the soldiers are full of bravado, but when the news leaks, the cover-up becomes a matter of cold pragmatism to justify what was done. It’s in these final stretches that Metz justifies the quasi-fictional tone of the film, because the real-life drama is Dostoyeskyian in scope and depth. This is a glimpse into the soul of a team of professional killers, for whom the definition of ‘the right thing to do’ has long slipped away from normal civilian meaning.