Film Review: The Kill Team

Marine Adam Winfield goes on trial in a case in which U.S. soldiers murdered innocent Afghanis. Strong subject marred by poor narrative choices.

The press jumped on the story that in early 2010, U.S. troops had targeted and killed three innocent Afghan civilians. Director Dan Krauss started filming one of the participants, Adam Winfield, in 2011, after the Marine had been arrested and charged with premeditated murder. The Kill Team follows his trial.

Presumably denied access to court proceedings, Krauss focuses instead on several interviews with Winfield, who provides a chilling account of his squad in the 5th Stryker Brigade. Krauss also interviews Winfield's distraught parents Christopher and Emma, and his matter-of-fact lawyer Eric Montalvo, who urges the soldier to accept a plea of involuntary manslaughter.

The Kill Team makes the argument that Winfield shouldn't be on trial at all, but is instead a whistle blower who tried to alert authorities about his squad's crimes. Krauss recreates text messages Winfield exchanged with his father in 2010 that seem to corroborate his claims of innocence.

Concentrating on Winfield gives Krauss time to explain what happened in Afghanistan, but it also throws The Kill Team out of balance. The director does include several other interviews that present a broader picture of the incidents.

An unrepentant and casually profane Jeremy Morlock asserts, "It's not that you are a murderer, you're [just] convicted of murder." He calls Afghanistan "a paradise for warriors," and goes into detail about how squad leader Calvin Gibbs plotted killing civilians. (Gibbs cut off his victims' fingers to make a bone necklace.)

Andrew Holmes notes that he was 19 at the time of his deployment, and at first compared Afghanistan to Top Gun. Like the others, he complains that the war became boring and disappointing.

Calvin Gibbs, currently serving a life sentence, appears only in photographs. By all accounts the central figure in the killings, he could have added crucial insights into what happened. Also absent are military spokespeople who might have defended or refuted Winfield's statements.

Krauss, who also wrote, produced and photographed the documentary, can be heavy-handed. He cuts to black for emphasis within interviews, and uses too many shots of teary-eyed parents staring off into the distance. It doesn't help that the participants tend to speak in bald clichés. "I'm living a nightmare." "We're fighting for his life."

As the facts of the story emerge, The Kill Team begins to feel uncomfortably biased. Without giving too much away, Winfield wrestles with moral compromises that complicate his initial version of the incidents. And without questioning Winfield's motives, it sometimes feels like Krauss backed the wrong horse.

Taxi to the Dark Side set a high standard for documentaries about our wars in the Middle East. What's missing from The Kill Team is any attempt to come to grips with the three Afghani victims, admittedly an expensive task for a low-budget documentary.

The Kill Team should be commended for bringing attention to an ugly, sordid incident. But lurking on the edges of the story is a far more challenging documentary.

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