Friday, 15 April 2011

Armadillo (Janus Metz Pedersen, 2010) Review

Documentarian Janus Metz follows a Danish squad in Armadillo (2010)

Last year I saw a documentary called Restrepo (Tim Hetherington, Sebastian Junger, 2010), a shell-shocking masterpiece which recorded one year in the lives of a US platoon as they fought in the Korengal Valley; the deadliest valley in Afghanistan. A cavernous deathtrap, the valley is a strategic nightmare where the enemy always have the advantage, and early on in the film a comrade, Juan 'Doc Restrepo, is killed in action. The remaining men name their stronghold after the fallen medic, who also gives the film its name. It's an intense vision of combat; as I said in my yearly roundup review, Restrepo is a film that "presents the horrors of war unedited and uncompromised - and they turn out to be one and the same." Armadillo, which follows a Danish platoon over a number of months at the Armadillo base (an army settlement in the Southern Afghan province of Helmand), comes with hefty critical plaudits, many proclaiming it a cousin to Restrepo - indeed, it's a fascinating coincidence that they appeared at roughly the same time. Sadly, however, Armadillo can't hold a candle to that film and is quite the disappointment...

The reason is simple. Hetherington and Junger are a photographer and journalist respectively so they are concerned with realism and information. Veterans of the news room, they have been surveying this war from the outside for a long time and when given the chance to enter it they did all that they know how to do - report. It's intensely real. But this film is much cleaner and more edited than Restrepo, which was essentially free-form and in-your face. Armadillo attempts to be a narrative documentary as it creates a conventional story arc from the raw footage. Combat scenes unfurl from 10 different angles and even though the footage is real it doesn't put you any closer to the action than a fiction film would - because it's following the exact same structure. The perspective isn't any different. The film creates set-pieces, whereas Restrepo was a kind of stream-of-consciousness vision of war. If a bomb fell or gunshots went off the camera would drop to the ground and we wouldn't cut to another shot. We would stay there, scrambling for cover in the dirt as shells dropped to the ground and deafening mortars disoriented the viewer. It was like being there, in the conflict. There's an astonishing moment in this film where an explosion on a videogame match cuts to a real-world explosion shot in night vision. It's impressive, but to what end does it serve documentary? It's a gimmick, and I never really felt like I was part of the platoon. To be honest, I find it a little manipulative. In creating set-pieces Metz has left on the cutting room floor all of the footage which marks this apart from a fiction film like The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008), and that's a huge problem.

Another area in which Restrepo excelled was relaying firsthand the experience of war from a soldiers eyes. There are regular intervals in the film where the filmmakers sit down with a solider and ask him to speak about his experiences. The confessions are shockingly frank and deeply emotional. In Armadillo we never really see the soldiers as individuals, but rather a group. Metz's camera does observe some raw conversations, and a one-on-one with company leader Rasmus after an IED attack is quite moving. But most of the time we spend with the guys at the Armadillo base is when they're hanging out - playing videogames or watching porn. Some would call that naturalism but I don't see the point. Is it to make us feel closer to the men? It didn't have that effect for me. I wanted more scenes like the one where company leaders sit down with concerned civilians who have had their homes bombed by the Taliban, and are caught in the middle of a conflict they have no control over. These scenes are interesting and get to the heart of the matter. Yet they are few and far between.

Perhaps it is unfair of me to constantly refer back to Restrepo, as both films were made at exactly the same time; this is not a copycat incident, just a coincidence, and both films are sincere and well intentioned. But Restrepo set a high bar and in my mind is the definitive war documentary. Every time Armadillo hit a wrong note I was reminded of how Restrepo had handled a similar moment, and how I felt at that time. Every couple of minutes I was transported back to the world of that film and the realities I had been presented with. What a harrowing experience it was, and I felt so attached to those men. Armadillo is not a bad film, because it's important to have documents like these. There are moments of insight and its heart is in the right place, but if you want a real war documentary, well... you know where to look...

Armadillo hit UK cinemas last Friday, April 8th.

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