(Janus Metz, 2010)
The series of conflicts which resulted from the events of 11 September 2001 have spawned a number of exceptional documentaries. The technology available to journalists and filmmakers today - the sort of technology which means anybody with a cellphone can film news footage in the street and see it on the Internet minutes later - makes possible an unprecedented level of access to events in the field of conflict. Lightweight digital cameras, in particular, mean that one man can make a movie. They also suggest a pleasing verisimilitude; to a certain extent, we associate the visual characteristics of material shot with a light handheld camera with modern warfare. This means that even fictional portrayals of warfare have partially adopted this shooting style as a shortcut to visual legitimacy. If it's shot this way, it looks more realistic, seems to be the thinking.
Well, Armadillo is real. It follows a Unit of the Danish army through a tour in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, tightly focusing upon five soldiers within the group. We witness them leave home, saying goodbye to tearful relatives at the Airport, then observe them through months of boredom and terror until we see their return to Denmark to those same families. It contains strong storytelling: the focus on just five men allows their characters to be well-established and Metz cleverly crosscuts between them, contrasting their personalities and reactions to the same events, just as a novel or War movie would treat the material if it were fictional. The deliberate nature of the storytelling is one of the reasons Armadillo sometimes feels more like fiction than a documentary; the other is its visual beauty. Cinematographer Lars Skree captures some absolutely stunning imagery here, the sort of thing we don't see much of in most War Documentaries.
The content is quite familiar as we see these men endure hours of tedium - with porn, wrestling, video games - and then shattering bursts of terrifying violence. That violence is always frighteningly banal, which is an aspect fictional films never capture, and beyond the explosions and the rattle of automatic weapons fire the most frightening sight here is the vacant shock in the eyes of a Dane who has just been shot and is being treated by medics. This is how it really is, his eyes seem to say.
Sensitive and profoundly respectful of the men fighting in the field - there are no politics here - and both articulate of the horror and appreciative of the thrill of warfare, Armadillo is a terrific, provocative, complex, exhilaratingly cinematic documentary on modern Warfare, fit to rank alongside other recent classics Restrepo and Gunner Palace.