It’s in his eyes that you see a glimpse of genuine shock and fear. This is not a fear brought on out of weakness; the wound is clearly painful enough to cause distress, but it is not life threatening, not so catastrophic as to cause the mind to distance itself from the gore. His eyes have the look of somebody who at that very moment, in the midst of a torrent of gunshots flying from the weapons of some unknown, unseen enemy, knows what it is to fear death, and would rather be any place other than right where he is.
This is but one of the many scenes captured with an almost effortless poetic flair by this extraordinary motion picture. Armadillo is named after a forward operating base in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, and we spend a tour of duty with these young men (boys, by any real measure) as they fly off to join a battle in a far-flung foreign land. This tale has been told countless times, but seldom has the real beauty, tension, and casual horror of war been captured in such an engaging fashion. Combat stills photography, with its frozen moments of action or quiet grace, has often been lauded for its near-iconic imagery. Documentary footage of combat, however, is often a shaky cam mess, told with either matter-of-fact reportage style or an exaggerated bounce designed to elicit nausea. Many a combat film has succumbed to this aesthetic, with shaky cam used to create a sense of being in the action.
With Armadillo, the filmmakers eschew the over-exposed, blown-highlights look of a contemporary war film like Hurt Locker and instead create a far more dreamy, moody palate, borrowing more from the likes of Apocalypse Now (the opening shot echoes that film in a far-from-subtle fashion, and the men actually make a ‘Nam reference or two). The soldiers trudge over sun-starched lands, walk through mists that make the conflict seem ancient, and sit in green-lit transport planes where they resemble some surreal choir. These are images where the drama is achingly real, and the conflict a morass of boredom with bursts of confused fury.
There are moments of almost casual intimacy, such as a scene where the teenagers on the stoop taunt a young Asian-Danish soldier in their own tongue, exhibiting the same idiocy and nascent racism that characterizes youth of that age and comportment throughout the world. There are the wizened, bearded locals that seem to be part of the landscape, who have a genuine sense of how they are merely pawns, once again, in a bloody battle between forces outside their control. There’s the conversation between a soldier and his mother, as she pours her fears into him, and he must tersely console her that yes, indeed, he’ll try to be careful. There is a masterpiece of a cut between a videogame rocket launch and an actual IED explosion that literally had me gasp. The narrative takes an almost Rashomon turn in the aftermath of a savage gun battle, where the confusion that has played out onscreen leads not only to a gruesome display of grisly body parts, but to the witnesses changing their story with each retelling. It is here that the film transcends many, many others of its ilk.
It is in the soldier’s eyes, captured in the still used in the programme book, that we find an insight into the sublime contradiction of conflict. After all, when that same soldier comes home, his first act is to brazenly show off his foot-long scar on the shoulder, a physical mark to be displayed as a totem of bravery, miles away from the shock, the fear.
Purists (or epistemological dogmatists) may question some of the filming and editing practices. I frankly don’t know how much they meddled with “the story,” and I don’t really care. The film oozes truth (or at least “feels” like it does), and you are genuinely afraid for the lives of its participants. This documentary famously played as a drama at Cannes, and I can certainly see why the programmers chose that route. This is gritty, engaging, smart, gorgeously shot, an intimate epic. Armadillo is simply an extraordinary feat of filmmaking and another masterpiece from the film minds in Denmark.