Hot Docs Review: 'The Kill Team'

The Kill Team
(USA, 77 min.)
Dir. Daniel Krauss
Programme: World Showcase (International Premiere)
Photo by Dan Krauss.
Fans of provocative exposés should add The Kill Team to their Hot Docs schedules. It’s a gut-wrenching account of the horrors of war and the atrocities that come after.

The parents of Specialist Adam Winfield describe their son as the kind of kid of which the Army dreams. He was keen to serve his country and eager to enlist in a battalion of heroes. Then, after Adam was in Afghanistan for some time, his father received a desperate message from his son that shattered both their faith in the military: soldiers were killing innocent Afghan citizens and Adam wasn’t sure how to act because he feared that speaking out would only make him the next victim.

The Kill Team weaves between past and present by interviewing Adam, his parents, and two fellow soldiers from his squad. The squad was dubbed “The Kill Team” because the soldiers satisfied the blood lust that brought them to Afghanistan by devising murders to fill the monotonous void of military work. The sensational nature of the case made it a high-profile affair, but Adam’s desire to do the right thing was not overlooked and the military greeted his inaction with a charge for first-degree murder. He could serve the same number of years for the charge that his peers received for pulling the trigger.

The stories offered by Adam’s former colleagues offer ample justification for Adam’s fear. One soldier in particular explains his involvements in the murders with matter-of-fact remorselessness. The Kill Team offers a brutalizing look at a soldier’s psyche. There’s a hint of Full Metal Jacket in the interviewees’ account of life in the field as they’re turned into mechanical killers and cogs in an ideological machine. The stories in The Kill Team show that Uncle Sam has little room for men who question the actions of the superiors, as Adam’s disapproval of the murders is equated to an act of cowardice, which is conveyed as crime equal to or greater than the murders that sparked the trial.

While The Kill Team smartly deconstructs the flaws in America’s military system, it also raises an important moral conundrum to complicate Adam’s story. Does Adam deserve to be punished for a failure to act? The situation is admittedly different from the time that Jerry, Kramer, et al violated the Good Samaritan Act by choosing to mock a man instead of intervening to help him, but Adam’s failure to act implicates him as guilty for at least one death. Sitting idly by seems indefensible when another man loses his life as a result.

The action of The Kill Team does what Adam failed to do. It takes action without fear of the consequences and exposes a necessary story in order to set things right. The actions of the military proceedings, which seem more like a quick clean-up than an attempt to correct a significant problem, no longer seem like a system for justice.

The subject matter of The Kill Team is undeniably harrowing, but the Krauss’s conventional approach seems a bit too procedural to inspire the kind of radicalism one needs to confront the steadfast Goliath of the military. The static talking heads format, interjected by awkward cuts that abbreviate the testimony with frustrating ellipses, is paired with observational looks at Adam’s legal battle along with sensational photo evidence of the military murders. The descriptions of the killings are brutal enough when voiced from the dead eyes of one of the killers, but the uncensored images are unflinchingly graphic and a gratuitous appeal to emotions.

At a quick seventy-seven minutes, The Kill Team delineates military mentalities as grossly inhuman and philosophically suspect, but the verdict reached plays like a plea deal. The final act resembles a closed proceeding, as it doesn’t really offer much else beyond sharp judgement at the military's inexcusable tidying up of the problem. In comparison to last year’s Hot Docs entry The Invisible War, which went beyond its story-time and attacked the system so thoroughly that it inspired change, The Kill Team might have trouble earning a higher rank.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Kill Team screens:
Tuesday, April 30 – 8:15 at TIFF Bell Lightbox
Thursday, May 2 – 2:00 pm at the Hart House Theatre (U of T)
Friday, May 3 – 4:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Please visit www.hotdocs.ca for more info on tickets, films, and show times.