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AFI Docs Review: “The Kill Team”

Filmmaker Dan Krauss looks at the horrific actions of one US platoon in Afghanistan in this compelling feature.

Still of The Kill Team via AFI Docs.

From one of its earliest scenes—when a soldier utters the line, “After the first murder, everything that I believed in about the Army was gone”—it’s hard not to be gripped by Dan Krauss’s documentary The Kill Team. The 79-minute film, which won Best Documentary at this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival, recounts the story of US soldiers accused of murdering innocent civilians in Afghanistan in 2009.

When the news broke, the media dubbed the soldiers the “Kill Team.” Director and cowriter Krauss, whose previous work includes the Oscar-nominated short The Death of Kevin Carter, turns the camera around, letting four of the accused tell their story. It’s not a pretty picture.

Private First Class Justin Stoner complains that serving in Afghanistan was “nothing like everyone hyped it to be.” They’d been trained to “kick ass,” he says, but were sent to the desert to dig wells and build schools. He and some of his fellow soldiers were itching to “get a kill.”

According to the soldiers, the platoon leader, Staff Sergeant Clavin Gibbs, had the same bloodlust, and concocted schemes to kill innocent Afghans. In one, the men would “drop” a grenade or gun by a victim’s body to make the killing look like self-defense.

After the first murder, Specialist Adam Winfield is dumbfounded by his unit’s actions. Krauss tells much of the tale through Winfield. Whether he is innocent is a matter of the viewer’s interpretation, and some may find Krauss’s clear sympathies for him biased. Still, it’s hard not to be moved by the intimate, raw scenes of Winfield’s family as they fight the charges leveled against Adam. Particularly compelling is the way in which the film includes Facebook messages between father and son.

The Kill Team raises challenging questions. Does the warfighter culture glorify killing? Does war, with its constant threat of being killed, so deaden a soldier’s humanity that he begins to see everyone as a potential enemy? Does the military’s system of justice cover up wrongdoing and fail whistleblowers who try to report crimes? (Those who charge the military with ignoring sexual assaults would say yes.)

The most troubling question raised in the film is whether this was an isolated incident or indicative of a widespread problem. “This goes on more than just us,” says Stoner, referring to civilian killings. “We’re just the ones who got caught.”

You may dismiss that as the justification of a guilty conscience. Surely most soldiers know right from wrong. Or is one issue that many Americans cling, perhaps naively, to John Wayne notions of a soldier? Whether you come away thinking these soldiers were atypical savages or the product of a flawed military, the film accomplishes its mission of making viewer reassess what they may have thought about our armed forces.

“War is dirty. It’s not how they portray it in the movies where there’s a bunch of honorable men with unshakeable patriotism,” Winfield says. “It’s just a bunch of guys with guns.”

Playing June 20, 5:30 PM, at the National Portrait Gallery, and June 21, 6:30 PM, at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center.

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