By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
The immersing, apolitical Afghanistan war doc Restrepo was not only my favorite documentary of 2010, but one of my favorite films of any type last year. So, when I ran across another documentary with a similar theme and setup it shot up my “must watch” list, subtitles be damned.
Guess I’d better put on my readin’ spectacles
Like Restrepo, the filmmakers follow a military unit in Afghanistan over the course of a deployment, covering everything from the soldier’s drudge work and attempts to allay their boredom to following them on patrols and right into the middle of firefights. The main difference is that instead of an American unit, the soldiers (and filmmakers) are Danish.
The scope of Armadillo (named after the unit’s base) is a bit larger than Restrepo, following the unit from their preparations and training before leaving toAfghanistan to their returns home, or a combat hospital. The filmmakers must have had a staggering amount of footage to deal with, but were able to edit it into a cohesive whole without sacrificing the rythms of duty, the adrenaline and terror of action, or the unexpected moments of serene beauty.
They also spent more time than Restrepo getting the common Afghani’s perspective, one that has been almost ignored by other media. The insights from it alone make the documentary worth a watch. They don’t know why we’re there- all they know is that “It’s not you or the Taliban who get killed, it’s we who get killed.” You can see the seething anger in their attitudes, particularly the young, and unfortunately but not surprisingly, the brunt of it seems directed at the foreigners and not the Taliban. When you couple the extreme difficulty of rooting out a guerilla force fighting in their home territory (which the film makes obvious) with a continuous supply of youth willing to carry on the fight, it’s hard to see the formula for victory.
On the plus side, it’s often a formula for good movies
On a slightly less pretentious note, you absolutely have to raise a glass to the balls of the cameraman. Some footage is captured with helmet cams on the soldiers, but other shots took a lot more. The action feels almost like a Spielberg or Paul Greengrass movie; putting the viewer right in the thick of gunfights, which often means of course that the cameraman was actually in the middle of them. The tension in these scenes is unbelievable, because it’s real. Hollywood can’t touch that.
Even with all the CGI in the world…
Something still is a bit off about the film, and I can’t entirely blame some of the camera angles that stretch credibility (which good planning could have accounted for). What holds it back is a climatic firefight that may show too much- particularly the aftermath where we discover what a hand grenade can do to four closely packed human bodies.
Most of us inveterate movie watchers have been so desensitized by big screen gore fests that it’s hard to process, as it certainly must have been for the young soldiers. Their cavalier, joking reaction is certainly more complex than it appears (how do you know how you would react until actually experience this?), but leaves a lingering bad taste in your mouth after identifying with those guys for the whole film. “It wouldn’t be such a big deal if you’ve ever slaughtered animals” says one soldier, and I can only be thankful that I can in no way relate.
This is about as real as a documentary gets, and coupled with Restrepo should be mandatory viewing for an informed citizenry. Also, if you just like some vicarious action- there’s plenty of that, too.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time shots are fired
Take a Drink: for every instance of nudity or pornography
Drink a Shot: for every patrol where nothing happens