Revealing both the horror and adrenaline rush of warfare, debut feature helmer Janus Metz’s gut-punching docu “Armadillo” tracks Danish soldiers over the course of a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Enjoying a degree of unfettered access that seems inconceivable within the U.S. or British armies, Metz and his crew get right down in the trenches while the bullets whistle by, coaxing candid interviews from the soldiers. Like any feature about the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, pic will face resistance from auds as a theatrical release but is sure to fire great guns on the fest circuit.
If nothing else, “Armadillo” proves just how well “The Hurt Locker” captured the mixture of boredom, fear, brutality and locker-room machismo that makes up the day-to-day routine of a frontline soldier. (The two films would make a great rep-house double-bill.) In fact, judging by the evidence presented here, most films about these Near East conflicts seem to sanitize the truth, perhaps in an effort to maintain sympathy for the troops.
Seen partying with strippers before shipping out from Denmark, pic’s main subjects (shy Mads, swaggering Daniel, calm medic Kim and others) arrive at the Armadillo base in Helmand Province, a station they share with U.S. troops, although only the Danes are seen throughout.
Out on patrol, they find it hard to tell Taliban members from civilians, especially since, as one man puts it, the only visual clue is that one set has guns and the other doesn’t. Illustrating the consequenes of bad decisions, pic shows a civilian contact officer interviewing people seeking damages for lost family members, property and livestock, and handing out piles of notes in compensation. At one point, when a group of Afghan kids mock a soldier in their native language, he mistakenly assumes they’re asking him for money.
With almost numbing regularity, the film mixes sequences in which the men exchange gunfire with the Taliban with footage as they play shoot-’em-up computer games or watch porn to relax back in the barracks.
While a few men are injured in combat, and an IED claims three soldiers from a different team, the observed platoon’s kill rate seems fairly low until the pic’s last half-hour, when an engagement in the Green Zone (partly filmed by a camera strapped to one soldier’s helmet, producing amazing grunt’s-eye-view footage) leaves half a dozen Taliban dead, shown in graphic detail. At the debriefing afterwards, a soldier effectively admits wounded Taliban were shot instead of given medical aid, which threatens to turn into a scandal when word of it leaks back home.
Shot on a mixture of digital formats (including Red, Canon D5 and DVD Pro HD cameras, per press notes), widescreen lensing credited to Lars Skree has both grit and, in quieter moments, painterly thoughtfulness. Score by Uno Helmersson punches up the emotion with plaintive, quasi-Philip Glass/Arvo Part repetitive progressions. Sound design by Rasmus Winther is also a standout.