At this stage in the seemingly never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, how many more documentaries can we bear to watch about the soldiers who have gone to fight, kill and die for their country? There is a risk that all of these movies will ultimately blur into one indistinct study of young men damaged and disillusioned by the conflict they have been thrust into. Case in point: no sooner has the Oscar-nominated Restrepo left our memories than the similarly themed Armadillo has arrived to fill its place. But while these two films may, on the surface, appear to be cut from the same cloth, the manner in which Armadillo chooses to cover this territory sets it apart from most documentaries of this type.
Armadillo follows a single unit of Danish soldiers on their tour of Afghanistan, but director Janus Metz eschews the standard interviews with the men, instead focusing on observing their actions and immersing us in their experience. True, the film follows a familiar narrative. It opens with the young men enjoying a raucous farewell party and saying tearful goodbyes to their anxious families. Their destination is Forward Operating Base Armadillo, which is based in the Helmand province. Their role is to provide a stabilising influence in the region, to stay vigilant against Taliban attacks, and to win the hearts and minds of the locals. Armadillo watches them at close quarters, seeing their boredom and frustration grow as they play computer games, watch porn and wait for their chance to test their trigger fingers.
Much of this is regular stuff for a platoon-based documentary, but the way Metz films it is not. This is a slick production, defined by its artfully lit and carefully composed camerawork and sharp editing. Metz is sometimes a little too neat in his cuts (from a video game explosion to the real thing) and some shots have the whiff of artifice (the image of a forlorn soldier in the shower has been much derided, with good reason), but he has constructed something impressive and compelling here. Many of the sights Metz and his team capture on their HD cameras carry more impact and truth than any staged sequence could ever do, and the shell-shocked expression on a wounded soldiers face speaks a thousand words. Armadillo gives us a taste of the troops' experience and we witness their anger, pain and frustration as their colleagues are wounded and killed, or as they witness atrocities such as a young girl falling victim to a grenade. The film slowly documents the build-up of turbulent emotions that the soldiers carry into battle, which may be at the root of the film's most notorious element.
The first thing that strikes you about the gunfights depicted in Armadillo is how remarkable it is that the cameramen shot this footage without getting their heads blown off. We are pitched right into the middle of the chaos, bullets whizzing overhead, guns blazing and mortars exploding around us. It's a terrifying spectacle and an extraordinary adrenaline rush, but one sequence of events led to the film becoming a major talking point in Denmark, when the soldiers apparently gunned down helpless Taliban insurgents in a creek and then joked about the incident. Armadillo shows us the repercussions of this action, but it refuses to judge any of the men involved; and how could it? How can we possibly understand the thoughts and emotions of young men who are placed in this situation and forced to kill or be killed at all costs? Wars may change, but the nature of war, and what it does to the men who fight, does not.