2013 // USA // Dan Krauss // November 20, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Tivoli Theater)
It’s been a strong year for advocacy documentaries, with Blackfish, Dirty Wars, The House I Live In, and Inequality for All making deft, passionate cases for political and social change. Director Dan Krauss’ heart-rending new feature, The Kill Team, is another impressive entry in this subgenre, but it cuts to the quick in a way that surpasses its contemporaries. As with Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s galvanic exposé of Sea World’s cruelties, The Kill Team functions according to a “watch and promote” model. Although a second viewing would have little value, The Kill Team is the sort of eye-opening film that compels one to command friends, relatives, co-workers, acquaintances, and strangers on the street to “See. This. Film.” At risk of sounding speciesist, The Kill Team ultimately edges Blackfish due to its human subject matter. While keeping orcas in captivity is a barbarity, the perverse effects of war on the warrior’s psyche are a far more immediate and pervasive issue.
Proximally, The Kill Team concerns the Maywand District killings: the cold-blooded murder of Afghan civilians by a group of U.S. Army infantrymen in 2010. The only motive for these homicides appears to have been a bloodthirsty longing for the prestige associated with slain insurgents. When the soldiers became frustrated with the lack of opportunities for “legitimate” killings, they decided to start firing their rifles and tossing grenades at random farmers and clerics. Like corrupt cops closing ranks after a dirty shoot, the self-described Kill Team planted weapons and coordinated their stories to deflect suspicion. Not content with premeditated murder, some of the soldiers went so far as to collect grisly trophies of fingers, teeth, and other body parts from their victims.
Several soldiers were implicated in the slayings, but Krauss’ film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield, a then 21-year-old kid from a Florida military family. While he was involved in the Kill Team’s appalling crimes, Winfield was the only soldier to react with substantial shock and disgust at the actions of fellow platoon members. After the first murder, Winfield quietly alerted his father Christopher to the situation via Facebook chat, expressing his disillusionment and horror, as well as his fear for his own life should his whistleblowing be exposed to the platoon. Winfield asked his father to report the incident to the Army and seek protection on his behalf. Where events went from there is best left for the viewer to discover, but suffice it to say that Winfield was thrown into a waking nightmare with his vicious Army “brothers” on one side and the service’s monolithic criminal justice bureaucracy on the other.
The Kill Team is plainly sympathetic to both Winfield’s plight and that of his anguished parents, who devote every ounce of energy and minute of time to the coordination of their son’s legal defense. In one of the film’s most overwhelming scenes, his mother Emma begins explaining her views on her son’s case with a lawyer, and is soon pouring forth her maternal rage and woe. Meanwhile, Winfield sits nearby, focused on a laptop screen, rigorously keeping his eyes averted from his mother. (Whether this is from embarrassment or another reason is never entirely clear.) These kind of poignant moments abound in Krauss’ film, which uses talking head interviews, fly-on-the-wall observation, and footage from Afghanistan to construct a tale with deeper emotional, sociological, and philosophical ambitions than those of punchy news reports. While it necessarily recites the established facts of the Kill Team’s crimes, the film is particularly interested in how the soldiers’ savagery and the Army’s indifference exemplify larger institutional evils.
Krauss permits many of the Kill Team members to tell their stories in their own words, although the monstrous ringleader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, is pointedly absent. These soldiers rarely evince the sort of remorse that their crimes would seem to warrant, but they all concede that their deeds are consistent with the mindset of the U.S. military rank-and-file, particularly the infantry. The bloodlust that Army training promotes in men in their late teens and early twenties—when such overgrown boys are at the peak of their aggressive tendencies—is a feature, not a bug. While the members of the Kill Team have an interest in shifting blame to organizational failures, their criticisms of Army culture sound less like attempts to minimize their responsibility, and more like the bitter wisdom of men whose unthinkable experiences have rendered them prematurely old. As The Kill Team makes clear, the actions of the platoon and the injustices done to Adam Winfield are likely to inspire outrage, but there are more urgent matters at play than those surrounding the specific events detailed in the film. As long as American troops are honored and socially rewarded for killing above all else, there will be an twisted incentive to murder, which means more dead civilians and more imprisoned soldiers.