BY NANCY R. MANDELL
The minute I took my seat at the packed screening of “Armadillo” in a Soho hotel the other day, I realized that I was probably not the right member of our staff to review this film. I usually avoid war documentaries, so I can’t even compare “Armadillo” to last year’s “Restrepo” which took high honors at Sundance and praise from many critics for its raw scenes of battle and life among American troops in Afghanistan.
Like “Restrepo,” (I’m told), “Armadillo” is the result of a director and camera crew embedded in the action. It also won an unprecedented Critics Week prize at Cannes.
This time, filmmakers follow a troop of young Danish soldiers, first-timers all, serving six months at Armadillo, an army base in the province of Helmand, less than a kilometer away from Taliban positions in Southern Afghanistan.
The film begins on the eve of the boys’ departure, as they say their farewells to the families and girlfriends they’ll leave behind. Director Janus Metz singles out two of the young men from the beginning: Mads—shy and small of build, an unlikely combatant —and Daniel— tall, blonde and clearly aggressive. There are some touching moments, but they’re quickly erased by scenes from the raucous going-away party where the guys wallow in beer and porn—some of it very much live. Leave it to the Danes!
But it occurred to me as Metz and his cameraman, Lars Skree, followed this action and the ensuing scenes of battle, boredom and bravado that either my attitude towards documentaries has been skewed by too many reality shows (and I hear about them more than I watch them) or reality TV has affected the documentary genre—perhaps not for the better. For despite the verisimilitude of combat and appreciation of the methods that achieve it, what I came away with was embarrassment at the uninhibited behavior on display so candidly both in the barracks and on the battlefield. The pivotal war scene—so shameless that it provoked criticism from the Danish government—is less awful for what the soldiers do than for the ease with which they do it. It reminded me very much of Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” an underrated Tommy Lee Jones film released a couple of years ago. In both movies, the takeaway is that war—at least this war—is a desensitizing experience. And maybe the men and women who survive it will never recover, so they simply sign up for another tour. But I found myself more horrified by what happens to the soldiers you really don’t get to know very well in “Elah” than I was by the casual carnage inflicted by the young Armadillo soldiers with whom I spent an hour-and-a-half.
Documentaries always expose their subjects of course; isn’t that the point? But when did documentaries begin to make us cringe, to take perverse pleasure in presenting us at our worst? For me, that change coincides with the constant subjection to—and acceptance of—reality television.
“Armadillo” opened April 15 in Manhattan.