A platoon of raw, inexperienced recruits. A tough but caring sergeant. Guilt-stricken soldiers, haunted by their actions. The raw, sustained terror of combat. The seductive siren song of war. All that’s missing is a cute orphan and a sympathetic whore with a heart of gold. Armadillo is full of War Movie clichés you’ve seen a thousand times. The only difference being this time the blood and the bullets are for real.
Broadly similar to Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger's 2009 documentary Restrepo, Janus Metz’s Armadillo is a raw and visceral experience, distilling into 100 minutes the six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan of a platoon of Danish virgin soldiers. Opening with almost pastoral scenes of Danish suburban life, Metz follows one young rookie as he enjoys a farewell meal with his family. We are the silent guest at this Last Supper, eavesdropping on their conversation as talk turns to politics, the rookie’s naïve idealism and longing for combat sharply contrasted with his family’s lucid dissection of the War and their fears for his safety. Meeting up with his brothers in arms, they indulge in one last hedonistic night of booze and strippers before an emotional farewell with their loved ones at Copenhagen airport where they board the Hercules transporter that will take them to Afghanistan.
Landing in darkness the troops find themselves stationed at Camp Armadillo, a joint British-Danish outpost, deep in the “Indian Country” of Helmland Province. For a while nothing much happens; the troops settle in, spend their days watching porn, listening to heavy metal and playing video games, the tedium only occasionally relieved by the regular patrols they make. Slowly they become frustrated, harried by an invisible enemy who plants IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) which kill and maim their fellows or snipes at them from cover before disappearing back into the local populace, sapping their morale. We watch as the naïve, callow recruits evolve into cynical, battle-hardened thrill-junkies eager to test themselves in the heat of combat, desperate to prove themselves. When a routine patrol is ambushed by the Taliban, the resulting battle divides the platoon and causes a political storm back home.
Eschewing the talking heads-style of reportage for a looser, observational approach, Metz and his cameraman take us deep into the action, focusing on the soldiers rather than the larger political story of the War On Terror. Devoid of rhetoric the film exists as a deeply immersive experience allowing us to experience the highs and lows of their lives; the boredom and the tension, the visceral exhilaration of combat, the triumphal euphoria of it’s aftermath, the guilt when something goes wrong.
The battle scenes are quite simply stunning. Metz and cameraman Lars Skree are on patrol with the men when they are ambushed and you can almost feel the wind from the bullets as they whiz, wounding the men around them. As an audience you are right their with the men, feeling their terror, their thirst for revenge and their resolve as they finally get the chance to take the fight to the enemy, a fight whose bloody aftermath caused a national outrage after one young soldier, in a phone call home, repeats a comrade’s vain boast that he finished off a wounded enemy.
Ultimately, the film proves no more reliable than the soldiers’ accounts themselves; Metz and Skree capture the chaos and complexity of the battle but not the moment when the fatal shots are fired, leaving the audience to make up their own minds about what they’ve witnessed. Tense, brutal and moving, Armadillo is a ferociously cathartic experience.