In a world that has become increasingly industrialized, computerized, and mechanized, we find ourselves as a species increasingly enslaved to routine, rut, and lifestyles that ground us in a single place. The pressure this puts on us, especially the youths of our various cultures, to break out of that cycle and “live” in a very abstract sense is at a historical high. Even for those unable to quantify it, there is often an aggressive desire to go out in the world and accumulate raw experience. It’s this difficult-to-articulate instinct that seems to drive the group of young Danish soldiers who sign up for the military, end up in Afghanistan and make up the focus of Janus Metz’s documentary, Armadillo.

The title refers to the name of the Forward Operating Base the boys are stationed at. Before their arrival we are given an extremely intimate look at their family lives and the bit of debauchery they engage in before shipping out. Right away you’ll notice one of the most striking features of Armadillo- the extremely cinematic photography that while completely rooted in HD video, is processed, framed, and composed with more artistic precision than almost any verite documentary you’ve ever seen. Some of this can be explained with filters, post-processing, and careful color-timing, but the depth of coverage and delicate compositions so often feel like they’re from a narrative film that you question the documentary nature of the film. This gets toned down during the combat footage, but still rears its head at unexpected movements. Regardless, for all the touches of artifice in the quieter moments, the sharp reality of the legitimate combat footage is more than enough to maintain the film’s credibility.

For those not fighting in them, wars typically become monumental abstractions that are debated, shaped, and decided upon by masses who are incapable of even conceiving all of the layers of human endeavor encapsulated by the word. Abruptly being dropped into the small efforts of a unit of soldiers being orientated to daily patrols is shocking for that reason, and without the obligatory shots of the large military base, news reports, or other contextualizing images, you can’t help but be shocked at the smallness of the Afghan war. It is one fought by a half dozen soldiers at a time in daily skirmishes that only occasionally have notable results. We watch our soldiers acclimate to this environment, make a pretty shitty first go of it on their initial patrol, and eventually become accustomed to the base and its small, important mission. The base is butted up against active Taliban-controlled areas, so while out-and-out combat is rare, brief moments of confrontation and crossfire are expectations for them.

The climax of the film takes place when the group of soldiers finally enter into an intense firefight that leaves a number of Taliban soldiers dead. The boys make a few questionable decisions (though our unique view into the situation pretty thoroughly vindicates them), but it is striking is watch the group deal with the traumatic event in their own way. The lot of them go through stages of immaturity, bravado, regret, obscenity, fear, pride, and everything in between, and some of the best footage of a film filled with stellar footage are these moments that essentially represent the film’s denouement. There is controversy that follows, but its quickly squashed and the boys soon return home to their tearfully joyful families. We witness the relief of parents, siblings, and girlfriends to see their loved ones again, and get brief notes about the path each soldier took after their return home. It’s here the point is definitively made- adventure, experience, growth… it’s addicting, and such an extreme search for life thrusts you into mindset that is difficult to escape.

Never as traumatically dark as you might expect, Armadillo is still an incredibly intense and personal film, with combat footage that is frightening and striking in equal measure. It’s a look at one of the American-driven theaters of combat, told from a completely international point of view that maintains a strict apolitical tone. This is the story of men search for life, in a struggle filled with death.

Rating:
★★★★½

Out of a Possible 5 Stars