Review: ‘The Kill Team’ Is Daring and Essential

By  · Published on July 25th, 2014

Editor’s note: This is a rerun of a review that was originally published during the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

The Kill Team is the most daring documentary of the year so far. The production did not involve traversing the Pacific Ocean on a raft or dodging government censors, but filmmaker Dan Krauss’s military exposé is not that kind of audacious. Rather, this is an example of real journalistic bravery, both in its content and its composition. Its subject matter is among the most challenging in recent memory, the case of the Maywand District murders. At least three innocent Afghan civilians were killed by U.S. Army soldiers in early 2010, to be charged later that year. To even bring this story to the screen takes a certain amount of chutzpah.

Yet the daring of The Kill Team goes beyond the simple presentation of this tragedy. Krauss hides nothing, nor does he get lost in horrifying images and testimonials. This is not a film about the sensational aspects of evil, the unapproachable sociopathy of a small number of soldiers. Rather, Krauss drives right into the ethical conundrum at the center of the murders, the inherent violence of not only the war in Afghanistan but of modern warfare in general. He doesn’t offer any answers. This is crucial. The Kill Team respects its audience, trusting us to rise to the occasion of witnessing these events, but it does not tell us which conclusions to draw.

Krauss begins with Specialist Adam Winfield, the embattled soldier at the center of this scandal. Winfield sits astride the moral fence of the film, both victim and perpetrator of this series of crimes. He was part of the platoon in question before November 2009, when Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was assigned to replace a previous squad leader. He watched Gibbs begin to suggest ways of killing civilians, usually by means of a “dropped weapon” – leaving a firearm on the corpse to support a claim of self-defense. Winfield was horrified enough to tell his parents back home, and when Gibbs began to convince other members of the platoon to act on these plans, he urged his father (former Marine Christopher Winfield) to contact the Army.

No one answered Christopher’s calls, and the killings continued. Winfield couldn’t report the crimes himself without fearing retribution from Gibbs, so he stayed quiet. Eventually the psychological burden broke him down, and Gibbs was able to pressure him into participating in one of the murders. Yet when the story finally broke open in mid-2010 due to a newly arrived private, Winfield came clean. Then, in spite of his attempts at whistleblowing, Winfield was charged with premeditated murder and conspiracy. The moral center of The Kill Team is therefore a young man who was victimized by his superior officers but also participated in their crimes, brought to trial by the Army for conspiracies he had tried to expose. There is no easy way out of this mess.

And so, Krauss challenges his audience to navigate these complicated waters. Moreover, he dares to gradually show the full atrocity that these men committed. The Kill Team is not an easy film, and for that reason it is necessary. The horror is compounded by the pride that these men took in their crimes, the trophies that Gibbs kept and the unabashed glee with which the soldiers celebrate over the bodies of their victims. It is incredibly hard to process, but confronting the visual evidence is crucial. Krauss shows us the pictures, and in one instance even the video. It is a bold move, and a risky one. Yet it works, if only because this film would not be effective any other way.

Our ideas about war need to be cracked open, and The Kill Team does exactly that. The military is, in the words of one of the soldiers interviewed here, “just a bunch of guys with guns.” It is extremely unlikely that this was an isolated incident. This happens at least occasionally, if not often. Most of the time the culprits simply get away with it. Why? “Afghanistan is a warrior’s paradise,” these men explain. It would be very easy to rationalize this incident away, blame Gibbs’ charisma and sociopathy, and let it go. Krauss is braver than that. The Kill Team is very careful, but also thoroughly, vehemently honest. It’s a vital achievement of journalism and dignified filmmaking, and perhaps the first truly essential issue-driven documentary of the year.

The Upside: This is a stunning, powerful film that boldly complicates the conversation around America’s wars.

The Downside: A handful of moments are particularly difficult to take, images that may be too much for some.

On the Side: This is Krauss’s debut feature. His first short, The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club was nominated for an Oscar in 2006.