Monday, January 23, 2012
At its best, Janus Metz’s documentary Armadillo captures war in all its terror and tedium. Following a group of Danish soldiers on a tour of duty at a frontline base in Afghanistan (the titular Armadillo), the film contrasts the mind-numbing boredom of soldiers killing time with the brain-scrambling adrenalin buzz of killing the Taliban. Metz has been given remarkable access to the soldiers and he takes full advantage, following them on patrols and diving for cover alongside the young men when bullets start flying from parts unknown. It’s a stiff cure for boredom, but when you see the dreariness of life on the front without action, you begin to sympathize with the men’s professed desire for a bit of gunfire once in a while. This isn’t macho posturing—they just want something to do.
But as the film progresses it becomes difficult to trust Metz’s relentless stylizing of the material. At times, the film feels almost like fiction, scrupulously avoiding anything that might suggest its documentary roots—the soldiers never speak to or even acknowledge the camera, and only reveal themselves through conversations with other soldiers or family. Indeed, Metz appears to be treating the men less as subjects and more as characters, if such a fine distinction can be made. This misplaced desire is the source of one of the film’s most dubious tactics: an oft-repeated setup where a lone soldier stares blankly into space (or in one case, shuts his eyes while at home in the shower—oh, such dedication to documentary truth). Obviously, the intention is to suggest a level of melancholy reflection not otherwise borne out in any of the men’s actions and words. No one would be naïve enough to suggest a documentary is unvarnished truth, but the material should ideally dictate its terms to the director, not the reverse.
Such qualms are minor next to the queasy discomfort of the verite moneyshot of this borderline war porn. A patrol is ambushed by a group of Taliban fighters, leading to a frenetic, disorienting battle that concludes in the deaths of five enemy combatants (the Danish squad suffers a couple of injuries, but no fatalities). As the soldiers pull the Taliban men out into the open, Metz blurs the faces of the dead—a curious decision that begs the question of who exactly is being protected here. The dead men’s families? Or the audience itself, who are now free to appreciate the vicarious thrill of combat without having to recognize the dead opponents as anything other than faceless corpses? Armadillo seems ill prepared for the moral questions of filming war, which explains its retreat into the security of aesthetic distance. Shamed and horrified by these images, the film’s only refuge is to finally compromise their reality.