Movie Review: The Kill Team

For Whom the Whistle Blows: “The Kill Team” Enters Afghanistan’s Heart of Darkness

If Chelsea/Bradley Manning is the whistleblower best known for exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq, another Army Specialist, Adam Winfield, is arguably the most famous truth teller who revealed American atrocities in Afghanistan.  But like Private First Class Justin Stoner, Winfield found out the hard way that not only is it tough times for those who dare to blow the whistle, but the first casualty of war is still truth.

The 21-year-old infantryman came forward to reveal that soldiers of the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, who were deployed near Kandahar, executed Afghans for sport and then planted weapons beside their corpses to “prove” the casualties were “terrorists.”  (They also captured these chilling Kodak moments with a series of photos.)  Winfield’s “reward” for trying to report these crimes against humanity was, the moment he stepped off a plane when he returned to America, to be arrested and charged with committing premeditated murder.  He found himself to be in the Kafka-esque, Catch-22 trap of becoming a target of a major investigation into war crimes he himself had tried to expose.

Winfield’s wartime experiences and subsequent court-martial disillusioned the young volunteer, who undergoes an epiphany and tells a probing camera lens: “War is dirty.  It’s not how they portray it in the movies.”  But it is how Dan Krauss depicts combat in “The Kill Team,” a hard hitting, award winning documentary where the fog of war mingles with the haze of hashish.  Krauss’ take-no-prisoners doc, which takes its title from the nickname for the Stryker troops gone wild, also demonstrates why military justice is to justice what military music is to music, as the film focuses on Winfield’s “Alice In Wonderland-like” trial and tribulations.

“The Kill Team” is also very much a moving family drama.  Backing him up every step of the way are Winfield’s Cape Coral, Florida parents, Emma and Christopher, an ex-Marine.  In 2010 Adam tells his father via instant messenger about the dogfaces’ wrongdoing in Afghanistan and asks him to inform the Army inspector general.  Christopher attempts to alert the military, but to no avail.  As Adam confronts the ordeals of death threats, his own death wish and court case, Emma and Christopher stand by their son.  Even after he receives a three year sentence and bad conduct discharge his mom and dad unwaveringly believe Adam be not only innocent, but courageous for standing up for what’s right and trying to tell the truth, against all odds.

Although the jury is still out for some as to whether or not Adam — who did not try to stop the killing of Allah Dad and pled guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter — is a whistleblower or murderer, Krauss’ nonfiction film paints a sympathetic portrait of its protagonist.  “The Kill Team” also interviews other members of Winfield’s platoon, such as the conflicted Corporal Jeremy Morlock and Private First Class Andrew Holmes, who were both charged with the premeditated murder of 15-year-old Gul Mudin on January 15, 2010.  In the course of their horrifying odyssey both become bolder and wiser than they were when they volunteered to become cannon fodder after Uncle Sam got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Afghan land.  As part of a plea agreement Morlock, who hails from Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla, Alaska, received a 24 year sentence, while Holmes, who is from Boise, Idaho, is serving seven years behind bars.  Both were dishonorably discharged.

Private First Class Justin Stoner, from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was assaulted by fellow soldiers after he reported their drug use.  Along with the apparently decent Winfield, Stoner is the film’s conscience and hero and considered to be an informant on this F-Troop’s out of control reign of terror.  Questioning the military’s dehumanization of recruits, the philosophical Stoner ruminates: “Your job is to kill.  Then why the hell are you pissed off when we do it?”  Stoner alleged that he was shown human fingers — which triggered the murder investigation of the Afghans — by Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs.

The highest ranking soldier charged in this sordid, sorry, scandalous affair is “The Kill Team’s” bête noir.  Staff Sergeant Gibbs of Billings, Montana was found guilty of, among other things, three counts of murder.  Gibbs, who declined to be interviewed for the documentary and is mainly glimpsed in pictures shot by a photojournalist, looms as a cross between two classic characters from Hollywood’s Vietnam War epics: Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 “Apocalypse Now” and Tom Berenger as Sergeant Barnes in Oliver Stone’s 1986 “Platoon.”  Like them, the gung ho Gibbs reportedly goes rogue, instigates the Stryker Brigaders’ renegade mayhem and cuts fingers off of Afghan cadavers so he can use these bones for a creepy trophy — a skeletal necklace.  Much to his surprise, Gibbs’ running amok on the warpath landed him a life sentence at Fort Leavenworth (where he might have some illuminating tête-à-têtes with fellow inmate Chelsea Manning).

Krauss, who directed, co-wrote, produced and shot “The Kill Team,” pulls no punches as he tells his saga, which won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Documentary Feature and the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Golden Gate awards.  The director’s 2004 South Africa themed “The Death of Kevin Carter” received a Best Documentary, Short Subject Oscar nomination plus two Emmys. Krauss was also the cinematographer for other documentaries lefty filmgoers will be familiar with, including 2009’s “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” 2012’s “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists” and 2013’s “Inequality for All,” featuring former Labor Secretary Robert Reich waxing poetic about America’s glaring wealth disparity.

Unlike most war films “The Kill Team” unspools slowly, deliberately and is told mostly via a series of talking heads.  But it serves as a reminder that far from being a noble endeavor fought, as Winfield ironically muses, by “a bunch of honorable men with unshakeable patriotism,” war is, as Jean Renoir put it in the title of his 1937 pacifist masterpiece, “The Grand Illusion.”  “The Kill Team” demystifies the mythos epitomized by John Wayne militaristic movies, which starred an actor who never actually served in the U.S. armed forces and whom Garry Wills alleges in his 1998 book “John Wayne’s America” avoided military service during World War II.

While politically aware audiences will appreciate Krauss’ war-is-hell message, this documentary’s real target market are those young people who — like an impressionable Winfield — have bought into military madness.  After seeing for himself in Afghanistan’s version of “the big muddy” the harsh reality of what the apocalyptic Colonel Kurtz calls “the horror,” Adam Winfield wised up.  Perhaps, by seeing “The Kill Team,” would-be volunteers for Washington’s endless imperial misadventures will wake up and stay home instead, supposing what would happen if they gave a war — and nobody came?

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