Monday, April 18, 2011

Review | "Armadillo"

War is hell. We know that. It's been a common theme in cinema all the way back to Lewis Milestone's 1930 masterpiece, All Quiet on the Western Front. However in recent years it has become a message often lost in the fog of politics, and perhaps even overexposure.

It is easy, as a culture, to become desensitized to war. After all, we are currently involved in two wars and a third major conflict, and have been for nearly 10 years. America is tired of war. But they are even more tired of war films. Movies dealing with Iraq have flopped one right after the other, while an endless parade of documentaries has flooded the specialty marketplace, with mixed results. Audiences are always suspicious of having agendas pushed on them, whether they agree with them or not. And while there have been some very strong ones (Why We Fight, No End in Sight), the actual act of combat often remains an abstract concept reserved for narrative filmmaking.

Michael receiving medical attention after being shot in the arm in Janus Metz's ARMADILLO.
Photo by Lars Skree, courtesy of Lorber films.

Just last year, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo spent one year with a platoon in one of Afghanistan's deadliest valleys, observing wars effects on a group of courageous young men. This year, Janus Metz's extraordinary Armadillo takes it one step further, plunging the audience into a harrowing barrage of real life combat in one of the most unforgettable documentaries to come along in years. Metz and his crew follow a Danish platoon in Afghanistan for one six-month tour of duty. During that time, we follow the soldiers from their homes to the front lines, getting to know them before plunging into the heat of battle. The cameras accompany them on routine patrols, where they are ambushed by Taliban fighters.

It's a frightening, wholly immersive experience. Cameras mounted on the helmets of the soldiers give us a first hand look at real modern combat in a way no film has ever done before. This is powerful, visceral filmmaking. Metz allows the audience to look at warfare in a completely new way. Once it dawns on you that you are watching real soldiers fight real Taliban insurgents, often merely a few feet in front of the camera, Armadillo becomes something of a transformative experience.

Soldiers at forward operating base ARMADILLO, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Photo by Lars Skree, courtesy of Lorber films.

It is often said that one cannot go to war without coming back changed. By the same token, I would say that it would be nearly impossible not to be somehow changed by Armadillo. That is not to say that it in any way compares with the experience of actually being in combat, but for those of us who will never see it, it's something of a shock. Films like Black Hawk Down have taken us into the thick of battle, but never has real war felt so devastatingly immediate. Metz presents his film without agenda and with great empathy. By the film's end, the audience feels as though we have gone through this with the soldiers. We have felt their pain. We have watched their families' pain on the home front. This is real. This is happening. This is now.

The very existence of Armadillo is an act of heroism in itself. All debate about the righteousness of this war, or any war at all, falls by the wayside here, and even seems woefully beside the point. This is about the soldiers - their struggles and their triumphs, their joys and their pain, their life and their fear. It is a searing and unforgettable portrait of a modern warfare, a clear eyed exploration of the motivations and the drive of the modern soldier. But above all it is perhaps the greatest combat documentary ever made.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

ARMADILLO | Directed by Janus Metz | Not rated | Now playing at the IFC Center in NYC.

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