Director Janus Metz and cameraman Lars Skree spend six months with a group of Danish soldiers on an army base in the inhospitable and volatile Helmand province, southern Afghanistan.
With its gritty realism, and gripping procedural clarity, the late Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo (2009) was in many ways, the Platoon of first-person war documentaries. Following the same logic, Janus Metz’s riveting, trancelike Armadillo is the Apocalypse Now equivalent. That is to say this engrossing film exists in the here-and-now of close-quarters combat, and explores the disorientation that can occur when trained killers experience the realities of the kill.
The title, like Hetherington’s 2010 Sydney Film Festival programmer, is derived from an outpost, in this case, a shared Danish/British frontline base in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. The narrative follows the young men of Denmark’s Gard Hussar Regiment ISAF Team 7, based in Slagelse, from their teary departure lounge farewells into the tense, tedious, alienating forefront of international conflict.
Initially, the focus is on 'Mini’, a runt-like, wide-eyed soldier who carries both the responsibility of his government’s commitment to the 'War on Terror’ and the worry of his family on his shoulders. But the film soon broadens to explore the other personalities of his battalion cohorts, and most compellingly, the imposing and slightly unhinged Olby.
Aficionados of the first-person format will be salivating over the footage captured by Metz and his cinematographer Lars Skree. The director appears to be quite literally in the thick of the action, as bullets snap branches and ricochet off concrete walls within frame/earshot or inside the soldier’s quarters, where the men amuse themselves with porno movies and violent video games.
The film differs from the Oscar-nominated Restrepo in two key ways. Firstly, Armadillo is vividly cinematic. Unlike Hetherington’s perfectly confronting shoot-it/cut-it/ship-it approach, Metz is not bound by the conventions of the documentary format in his visuals or his post-production tooling. His film employs jump-cut edits, multi-camera angles, an evocative soundtrack and, allegedly, audio enhancement in some of the battle scenes. This stylistic approach may prove too flowery for some, and/or give it the superficial air that echoed in Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish vision of Vietnam. (Metz nods to the 1979 classic in his opening frames, which feature throbbing helicopters silhouetted in slow-motion against an orange sky.)
Secondly, Armadillo is not afraid to cast doubts about the morality of individual soliders. (Restrepo presented its all-American fighting men as one entity.) Following the unit’s most intense firefight, Olby boasts of the killing of four Taliban 'ninjas’ (the coverage is graphic and horrible); the incident, details of which were leaked to the Danish press by a concerned parent of one of the unit’s soldiers, created a storm of moral outrage at home and tension amongst the men.
Armadillo offers its most profound insight into the experiences of the modern soldier in its closing moments. Echoing the disconnect that Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) encounters upon his return home in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), Metz captures the men struggling to reassimilate back home. The wordless sequence is movingly rendered and highlights the cruel irony at play for the men who fight for western world freedoms; they necessarily maintain a distance from that very society’s core values in order to achieve their chosen goals.