Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Janus Metz's doc ARMADILLO: Danes & Brits in Afghanistan give us... the expected

Imagine Restrepo, done on half the budget (probably much less) and definitely half the color (this is one washed-out palette) but peopled with mostly Danish soldiers, along with some British, doing their bit for the free world -- and you'll have some sense of what you get from ARMADILLO. And this takes place... when?  Early 2009. Here I thought the Coalition of the Willing was a thing of the past. Well, this is Afghanistan, rather than Iraq. But don't you wonder, more and more often these days, what's in a name? Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya... In any case, the soldiers are here on some sort of peacekeeping/kill the Taliban mission, and so, eventually, that is what they do. And, yes, I mean kill rather than keep peace.

But not before boring us to near-sleep by acting like "good soldiers,"  macho and magnificent. The film did not, I should mention, bore its Danish audience when it opened last year, knocking Prince of Persia off its roost at the top of the Danish box-office. The film may seem a bit been-there/done-that to us, but it hit the Danes -- who like to think of themselves as a peaceful, law-abiding people -- where they live. Filmmaker Janus Metz (shown at right) followed a small group of Danish soldiers on military base Armadillo through an entire tour of duty, documenting, when able, all that he saw -- which includes, no surprise, playing video games, perusing pornography, laughing, joking, and especially trying to communicate with some very unhappy civilians. Before, finally, fighting the not-so-good fight.

We initially meet our soldiers on their home ground, with their families -- who are generally not keen on seeing their boys go off to war.  Then we pass through a little basic training and -- whoosh! -- we're in the mid-east, where surprises, mainly those of annoyance and boredom, await our boys.

The locals are no help and don't seem to want any, either. "If I help you, the Taliban will come and kill me -- and my family," one fellow explains.  These scenes echo those we've already seen in Restrepo, but they are still among the strongest in the movie. As the film meanders along, with the hand-help camerawork slowly inducing a headache, the boys get a little itchy to do something, anything. Something eventually presents itself, as Taliban fighters are seen in the area, so off we go to find them.

What happens, and the results of what happens takes up the remainder of the movie, and to say it ain't pretty is to understate. Questions such as Who's in charge here? Where are the orders coming from? and Why does everything seem so confused? are probably standard operating procedure. Yet this in no way surprises. Nor, it seems to me, should it. This is war done wrong, as has been our entire venture into the mid-east -- save perhaps our original "semi-conquering" of Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, during which the Taliban were routed. Temporarily, at least. Instead of following up on that and making sure it remained in place, we attacked Iraq and let Afghanistan go. We've paid for it ever since, no end in sight.

What remains, in operations from bases such as Armadillo, are much too little, much too late. Which pretty much describes the film at hand. I am happy that it disturbed the Danes. It should have. At the end of Armadillo, we learn that most of the boys we've just spent time with, after their taste of "glory," have re-enlisted and are back (or soon will be) in Afghanistan.  Even now, I expect, some Danish documentarian is preparing a new film about the sudden surge of post-traumatic stress amongst ex-soldiers in Denmark.

Armadillo (100 minutes, from Lorber Films) makes its New York City debut at the IFC Center this Friday, April 15. A limited nationwide rollout is expected in the weeks/months to come. I heartily commend whoever created the art for the film's poster, shown at top. This is the single most creative and striking image involved in the film, even though nothing like it actually appears on screen, of course. We've had a drought of exceptional poster art of late, so it's good to see some creative juices flowing again.

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