Review: Armadillo

Armadillo (2010, directed by Janus Metz)

A group of new recruits, eager but apprehensive, wait to be taken away to a foreign land, their young heads filled with thoughts of heroism and adventure. Once they arrive though, their illusions quickly get ripped away, and they are never the same...

War films have their own conventions and cadence. From All Quiet On the Western Front through Apocalypse Now to the Hurt Locker, long periods of boredom get punctuated by madness and death. Same as it ever was. The thing is, those are all works of fiction. Great (well, merely good in Hurt Locker's case) as they are, they aren't reality. They are just stories we tell ourselves to help make sense of that madness.

Armadillo flips the script. It's a documentary, the story of a six-month stint in Afghanistan by Danish forces, but it adapts all those familiar conventions and cadences to the doc format, and by doing so completely transforms them. This is no longer a story we tell ourselves to make sense of the madness; it's the madness reaching out and infecting our stories, and making them hollow.

A lot of Armadillo's power comes from the footage that the filmmakers were able to get. Embedded directly with the unit, Metz and his team were not only able to observe how their experiences changed them first-hand, they were also able to dive right into actual combat thanks to helmet-mounted cameras. No Hollywood slo-mo explosions to be found here; this is just pure chaos, soldiers screaming at each other in an adrenaline haze as they discover the limits of superior technology and numbers against a foe on its home turf.

For all the gut-wrenching immediacy of the combat scenes though, or the surgical precision with which they are edited, it's the humanity of the film that makes it truly unique -- and not just the humanity of the soldiers we come to know. The Afghan villagers that they meet and interact with act no differently than any other people would under similar circumstances, trapped between two enemies. The elders stoically mourn their losses; the parents try to protect who and what they can; and the teenage boys act like arrogant, oblivious dicks, just like they do at your local mall.

Really, to call Armadillo a war story misses the point. It's every war story, but with the glossy, insulating veneer of fiction stripped away. And it's also the very personal, very specific story of a group of young men who left home seeking adventure, and came home sobered and shattered.

And while (oddly clumsy opening voice-over aside) Armadillo keeps its politics close to the vest, it's impossible not to wonder, at the end of the film, whether the price those young men paid was even remotely close to worth it.

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