By Ezra Stead

Armadillo, Denmark, 2010

Directed by Janus Metz

Armadillo is a brutal, gripping look at war.

Danish director Janus Metz’s Armadillo has been criticized by some for its use of fiction film techniques in depicting the day-to-day lives of Danish soldiers stationed in Afghanistan; many of these detractors point to the very similar American film Restrepo (2010) as a model of documentary realism, seeming to indicate that the use of color correction and non-diegetic music in Armadillo makes it somehow less “real” than that film. Restrepo also had the advantage of an earlier U.S. release date and subsequent Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, so Armadillo, which also features a small film crew embedded with a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, became somewhat overlooked. However, it is largely because of the film’s post-production techniques that, for me at least, it emerges as the more gripping of the two films.

While Restrepo‘s directors, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, certainly deserve at least equal commendation for their bravery in making the film (they spent a year with their platoon, while Metz’s film covers only half that), it is precisely Metz’s more narrative-driven approach that draws the viewer in and makes his film all the more haunting. A viewer’s enjoyment of both films hinges to a great degree on their ability to be entertained by relatively unadorned reality, as much of the time spent outside of patrols and combat situations is whiled away in sheer boredom, so Metz is wise to present this reality with the gorgeous cinematography audiences have come to expect from fiction films. Whereas Restrepo‘s more traditionally documentary-style approach makes the experience akin to watching the news, Armadillo paradoxically feels more real because it is presented in the way most audience members have grown accustomed to seeing war: through the dark but beautiful visions presented in films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).

This is not to say that Armadillo shies away from the ugly realities of war. In addition to the stultifying boredom of life spent on a tour of duty in a foreign war, we see jarring combat footage often shot by cameras whose positions suddenly and drastically shift as their operators duck for cover. The crux of the film’s story involves controversy over the arguably unnecessary killing of four Afghan soldiers in a ditch, which leads to an investigation of the platoon. The footage shot during this tense and messy firefight does not make it clear whether the killing was in true self-defense or, as one soldier later puts it, to stack the bodies and make themselves look like heroes. By this point in the film, the viewer’s identification with the soldiers is complete, and it is difficult to say whether they themselves are entirely clear on what went down. We see them recounting the story at their post, where one soldier in particular (who resembles a younger, Danish Matthew McConaughey with extensive tattooing on his torso) seems to revel in the slaughter, but the film wisely never sets us up to judge them, either as heroes or villains.

This is one of the primary strengths of Armadillo – its moral ambiguity. By putting its audience so closely in contact with the reality of the soldier’s life in Afghanistan, the film makes us realize how the boredom and slowly creeping insanity of living under such strange and intensely regulated conditions in the desert can mix with the adrenaline rush of combat to strip away a person’s basic humanity. It is a theme common to many of the greatest war films, but to actually see how it happens in a documentary like this one or Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) is absolutely chilling.

Though there are many beautiful landscapes and sunsets on display throughout Armadillo, the film’s best shots are simple portraits of the soldiers’ faces, which often convey all the drama and pathos under the surface of seemingly mundane moments. The wild, staring eyes of one wounded soldier as he is treated by a medic are among the most haunting imagery ever captured, and the film contains many moments like this. Despite using the structure and techniques of fictional war films, Armadillo does what a documentary should: it lets the subject speak for itself, and thereby lays the truth bare.

Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’ Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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