Army Specialist Adam 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 Kafkaesque 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's film takes its title from the nickname for the Stryker troops gone wild. But "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 to 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's 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 Jan. 15, 2010. In the course of their horrifying odyssey, both become bolder and wiser than they were when they volunteered/ As part of a plea agreement, Morlock, who hails from Sarah Palin's hometown 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.
Pfc. 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. 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 Sgt. Calvin Gibbs
Gibbs is the highest-ranking soldier charged in this sordid, sorry, scandalous affair. He 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 Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 "Apocalypse Now" and Tom Berenger as Sgt. 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's 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.
While politically aware audiences will appreciate Krauss's war-is-hell message, he aims at those young people who -- like an impressionable Winfield -- have bought into military madness. Perhaps by seeing "The Kill Team," would-be volunteers for Washington's endless imperial misadventures will wake up and stay home instead.
What would happen if they gave a war -- and nobody came?
"The Kill Team" is currently making the rounds of the film festival circuit. It was recently shown at DocFest in Hollywood's Arclight Cinema and will be screened at filmfests in London, Warsaw and Zagreb in October. See: http://killteammovie.com/.
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book", published by Honolulu's Mutual Publishing, drops Nov. 25.