04/17/2011 08:10 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2011

War as Reality TV in Danish Documentary Armadillo

Armadillo,a riveting Danish war documentary, could be viewed as a companion piece to The Hurt Locker. In my view Armadillo is also the better film. Hurt, which focused on bomb squad techs in Iraq, adopted a proudly apolitical stance. This struck me as not only irresponsible -- it limited the film's scope to a case study of a wacko American's addiction to the war zone. (Some of the hype surrounding Hurt, I suspect, derived from the piquant idea of a hot-looking woman director getting down in the muck with the grunts and IED's.)

The prize-winning Armadillo -- which I caught at a screening at the Crosby Street Hotel in Soho, Manhattan -- is deeply political, but in the broadest sense and without grandstanding. Director/writer Janus Metz was embedded with a platoon of Danish soldiers on a base of that name in Afghanistan's Helmand Province for six months. In the course of observing the troops, he exposes the bestial impulses war unleashes in otherwise decent, well-intentioned people. And it's not just the adrenalin-buzz of combat that powers these men -- it's the conviction they're doing something heroic and important on the world stage, despite evidence of the war's futility and the slaughter of civilians.

Metz takes us from teary goodbye's between soldiers and their families, to a group farewell romp with a hooker, to a grim tableau of the troops stoically headed to Afghanistan on a military transport plane. Gradually introduced by onscreen titles, both newbies and vets emerge in the course of the film as distinct individuals. From the start you sense the assured hand of a gifted new filmmaker.

Metz explores the tedium of life on the base, where the troops play first-person-shooter video games, watch Internet porn, lift weights, and affectionately rough house. Tension is punched up when they go on patrol in a land where it's virtually impossible to distinguish the Taliban from farmers and merchants, who claim the soldiers are wrecking their crops and "here to kill animals and people." Drawing on the style of action features, Metz captures the sorties using multiple angles (thanks in part to the soldiers' helmet cams), quick cuts, and jerky hand-held work, shooting on a mixture of of digital formats. That the patrols feel like they're playing in real time compounds the suspense. You wonder, how the hell did Metz and his single cameraman (Lars Skree) get this stuff and get out in one piece?

Over time, it's clear the troops prefer patrols to boredom, despite the terror and such grisly details as "a heart lying around." Brutalization becomes the norm. The Taliban are called "Balibobs." "I'd feel worse shooting a stray dog," says a solider. "They have to fucking die." "If you've tried slaughtering animals this is no big deal." During a skirmish toward the end of the tour of duty, the troops are ambushed by insurgents hiding in a ditch. The Danes retaliate with a grenade, then "liquidate" the wounded men instead of providing medical aid. "We hit the jackpot in that ditch," says one. Metz's camera captures it all, as they fire round after round into the fallen enemy (graphically shown but their faces concealed on the advice of Metz's lawyer). During debriefing, the troops boast and laugh, still high on adrenaline and relief.

After the screening, which was hosted by Armadillo's distributor Lorber Films and the Consulate General of Denmark, critic David D'Arcy moderated a panel that included Metz and Thom Powers of DocNYC. Apparently in Denmark the film's exposure of the killing in the ditch prompted talk of prosecution for war crimes. "The soldiers developed a wolf pack mentality not in line with the rules of engagement," said Metz, who speaks like a French intellectual by way of Oxford. "The men felt that after they'd given me their trust I'd turned against them, portraying them as 'psychos.' The army tried to censor the incidents in the ditch but backed off. That would have been a worse scandal." Powers made the point that for most Americans the war in Afghanistan is far from a media lens (and in any event none of our embeds would have gotten the access of Metz.) "These were Danes, but the coalition is lead by Americans. A work like this opens up a curtain on a war in our name."

The most intriguing idea I took away from this astonishing film: for these soldiers actual war became conflated with computer shoot-em-ups. Out on the killing fields they become heroes of their own show. It's war as a video game or reality television. Significantly, despite the risk, most of the men re-enlisted. Metz cited not only their need to relive the traumatic experience in order to understand it -- "they romanticized being out there in combat and playing an important role on the world stage."

At the cocktail reception after the panel there was a spread of potato chips and something that resembled acorns and roots. It called up what peasants might forage for during a famine. Meanwhile, in the world beyond Soho, there was a budget fight in progress. The spread at the Crosby made me think of the Republican agenda for those of us not in the richest 1%: let them eat acorns.