Monday, February 2, 2015

Movie Review: The Kill Team

The Kill Team
Directed by: Dan Krauss.

The Kill Team is a powerful, disturbing documentary that unfortunately feels somewhat incomplete. It is about the Maywand District murders – killings that the US Army contends were the work of one rogue platoon who murdered at least three civilians (including a 15 year old boy) in cold blood, then planted weapons on them to make the killings seem like self-defense. The film is told largely from the point of view of Adam Winfield – who wasn’t quite 18, and was roughly 100 pounds when he entered the army. He saw what was going on with his platoon – lead by the cold blooded Sergeant Gibbs – and was both disturbed by their actions, and complacent in them. He started sending his father Facebook messages telling him what was going on – and his father tried to call different Army personnel back home to try and protect his son, but never got anywhere. When another soldier, Justin Stoner, did what Winfield did not – and actually blew the whistle on what was happening, Winfield found himself one of the soldiers charged with the murders.

The Kill Team is a fascinating documentary, as it examines the thin line that exists in war between justifiable killing and cold blooded murder. When soldiers enter a war zone, they are expected to kill if necessary – and are celebrated for doing that – but sometimes they cross that line. The Army wanted everyone to know that this platoon was one rogue outfit – not representative of the army in general. And perhaps they weren’t. But in the words of Stoner, they weren’t the only ones doing this – they were just the ones who got caught.

The movie is a standard issue documentary – mainly made up of talking heads explaining what happened. This by itself is disturbing enough – as we hear Winfield, Stoner and other members of the platoon (some who ended up in jail for murder) describing what happened in grisly detail made all the more disturbing because of how monotone, and matter of fact their voices are. This is true even describing the most heinous of things – like how Gibbs was collecting the fingers of his victims so he could make a necklace out of them. Most, if not all, of these soldiers are clearly suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder.

But they are also, it must be said, guilty of murder. In their own words, they talk about how they killed three people who had done nothing wrong, and then planted weapons on them to make it look like self-defense. They saw all Afghan in inhuman terms, which is why they were able to do it in the first place. There are photos in the movie of the men – including Winfield – posing with the bodies of their victims.

All of this is disturbing – and this story is clearly an important one to examine in detail. What is frustrating about the documentary is that at only 79 minutes, it feels somewhat incomplete. Gibbs was interviewed at all for the documentary – and the portrait we get of him through the other soldiers paints him as a one dimensional, inhuman monster – and the movie leaves it at that. Although Winfield has the most screen time in the movie – and his family is well represented as well – the movie perhaps goes a little too soft on him in its effort to paint him in a sympathetic light, instead of pushing him a little harder.
What we are left with in The Kill Team is a very good documentary that could well have been great – but needed the filmmakers to dig a little deeper, and push a little harder. Perhaps they tried – and just couldn’t get there. If Gibbs didn’t want to be interviewed, there’s not much you can do there. Since the movie admits off the top its relationship with Winfield, and his family, perhaps they also couldn’t push any harder than they did. The Kill Team remains an important documentary – yet another damning portrait of the War on Terror – but it’s not quite as good as it could have been.

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