By Christopher Bell | The Playlist April 15, 2011 at 1:33AM
You're not alone if, when discovering the release of a new war documentary, you let out a tired groan or mechanically turn away. These things have been coming out in droves for nearly a decade now, and truth be told, they're often similar in nature or intent and not always helmed by the swiftest of thinkers. That said, is it morally justified to ignore a contemporary subject because of over-saturation? As a society we can easily forget certain issues or events no matter how horrifying or terrible as they drift out of vogue (though we're not wholly responsible -- the media's focus is out of our hands), so how bad is it if we are consistently reminded of horrific pasts and presents?
Along with the collective shrug that certain docs are unfairly given, Janus Metz Pedersen's "Armadillo" (winner of Cannes' Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique) also seems to be suffering from overly obvious comparisons to last year's inferior "Restrepo" (both showcase a single troop for a series of months), which is unfortunately more pejorative than anything else. This documentary follows a group of Danes on a short tour of duty in Afghanistan, opening with an obligatory last-meal with the weepy family of a soldier. Pedersen quickly shifts to a rousing going-away party, introducing each youth with a title card as they grope strippers and headbang to generic metal. Party time ends the following day, and once they reach the Armadillo base in Afghanistan's Hemland Province, the soldiers are briefed on the surrounding area and the general conduct by which they must abide -- which includes being nice to the locals and giving them gifts whenever they can, seeing as they constantly destroy their land, livestock, homes, and families while trying to eliminate the Taliban.
Not much happens in the first 40 or so minutes, mainly the soldiers adjust to their new location and attempt to scope out their enemies amongst the innocent communities who are none-too-pleased with their presence. The boys kill time by watching pornography, cleaning weapons, checking in at home, and shooting the shit; things are relatively quiet until one of their commanders finds himself brutally injured by a roadside bomb, forcing him to leave the base and seek outside medical care. Here is where "Armadillo" strongly separates itself from its siblings, becoming more than just a cinema-verite study of soldiers patrolling the Middle East.
As the commander receives hospital care, much screen time is dedicated to both his recovery and the thoughts of the infantry in regards to it. Similarly, each wounded soldier is given deep focus, while the Afghani residents are dismissed quickly despite their vocal remorse for their murdered neighbors. The filmmaker, without being too condescending or disrespectful, peels back the hypocrisy of war, where soldiers are desensitized to the degree that they can mourn their fellow men but promptly ignoring the murder they are committing themselves. Pedersen sandwiches these scenes together, fascinated by their responsiveness to each other and their passive manner to the natives that suffer as a result of their fighting. One soldier who feels guilt for accidentally killing a little girl with a grenade is immediately consoled and told to forget about it, immediately following that is a sequence of mourning reflection for a damaged comrade.
Later scenes include a recap of a shootout on a dry-erase board that bares striking resemblance to a football play; a reunion with a wounded fighter that devolves into a boastful discussion of each person's battle highlights; and finally a lecture from a commander that details a possible investigation of their actions, stemming from a fellow cadet's parents tattling to the higher-ups on certain actions they believed to be abhorrent. It's true insanity, yet at the same time the director is careful not to belittle the human beings involved. While there is a certain distance and detachment that he commits to, even if he disagrees with them they are never portrayed as stupid or wrong.
Absolutely nothing is glorified by the filmmaker, who presents this nightmare in its all of its ugliness. Shootouts are hectic and shot as so, but they don't feel artificial -- though they are captured with a shaky cam and cut in a frenetic fashion, it hardly seems like there could be a different way. This aesthetic has been worn out by action movies as of late, but the sheer power here dismantles any biases that may emerge as a response. Pedersen also hits a few poignant notes, specifically in one sequence that centers on a moment after an enemy ambush subsides. As the dust settles, the camera's POV moves around the area in a slow haze, ignoring soldiers and attempting to make sense of what just happened. The frame lingers for a bit, inciting a myriad of emotional responses that even the most forthright documentaries never achieve. Few of them are ever this subtle in the medium, never having the trust to allow their lens to achieve something so honestly profound.
The film comes to a logical conclusion when the few months of duty are up; everyone returns to their homes and in a strangely perturbing epilogue, it's revealed that most of the men we are introduced to in the beginning will be returning to Afghanistan the following year. It's an unending cycle of horror, a realization that creates a small, growing pit in the chest that doesn't really hit until much after the credits.
Maybe "Restrepo" is more "compelling," but the filmmakers' insistence in martyring a single soldier (culminating their romanticism in a shot of him playing Blink-182's "Stay Together For The Kids," for real) and ignoring the rest of the victims is overly simplistic, problematic, tasteless, and kind of bullshit. Yes, it does paint a grim portrait of war and makes no excuses for their brave, non-PC subjects, but it also turns on the blinders and gets on its knees for an emotional response. "Armadillo" calls attention to rougher topics within its portrait of hell. It's a much harder pill to swallow, and consequently, it's much more deserving of discussion. [A]