Dan Krauss’ "The Kill Team," which opened last Friday in New York and is spreading out over the coming weeks, is a documentary with a very long logline: It’s about a U.S. Army platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that the group, stationed in Afghanistan and led by a cowboy psychopath named Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, conspired to maim and murder several innocent civilians, including a 15-year-old boy. It’s filled with talking heads, sourced material and photographs, and has won some big awards. These traits are often found in nonfiction films that are less concerned with form than they are with subject matter, but Krauss’ movie is such a work of dexterity and ambiguity that it transcends the often-staid tropes of the war documentary subgenre. This is a film where faces and captured gestures — the stuff of cinema — are as important as any of the story’s grisly, headline-grabbing details.
The problem is, most of the critics who’ve written about the film, including The New York Times’ influential Manohla Dargis, have missed what makes it special. This underlines the impression, among many in the documentary community, that nonfiction films, especially ones made up of interviews and featuring journalistic subjects, are often wildly misunderstood.
It’s not that I want universal praise for the movies that I like. As a filmmaker myself, I am naturally sensitive to the impact of a bad write up, but as fellow documentarian AJ Schnack tweeted after reading Dargis’ review, "smart, engaged dissents" are far superior to bloated Rotten Tomatoes scores if we have any interest in moving documentary film culture forward. Plus "The Kill Team" is garnering widespread praise, anyway. But even the positive reviews tend to ignore or gloss over what makes it more than a record of people talking — a nightly newsmagazine segment that somehow ended up in movie theaters.
The heart of "The Kill Team" is Adam Winfield, a member of the platoon, who attempted to blow the whistle on his comrades’ exploits but was eventually arrested and charged with murder himself. The film’s perspectives on Winfield subtly change throughout, and these molecular shifts emphasize the moral haze wrought by war. One extended sequence highlights this well: having received sober advice from their lawyer, Winfield and his mother process the news as the camera lingers on images of ankle bracelets and windows, emphasizing the sense that he is the victim. In hushed tones (and in a conversation clearly had for the camera) his father and mother then debate what to do, the narrative beat firmly establishing a family in crisis. The next scene, however, ends with Winfield admitting that he fired the shots that may or may not have killed an innocent civilian. The camera picks up a slight shiftiness in Winfield’s eyes that has by now defined his screen presence and suddenly everything is put into question. These movements of character occur not just on the narrative level but also in how the the camera sees Winfield and how we understand his behavioral gestures, a formal evocation at once subtle and stunning.
The interviewees, including Winfield, have the glints and grins of boys who’ve been caught having too much fun playing soldier, the camera always perceiving these disquieting performances. The disconnect of watching these young men, charged with murder but still talking about war and killing as if they’re playing with action figures while blasting the "Top Gun" soundtrack in their heads, is deeply unsettling. Their acned faces and exuberant eyes betray a disturbing relationship between the military and adolescent delinquency.
Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir gave the film a "Pick of the Week" designation, but spent most of his glowing and smart review talking about the story and facts that inspired the film, never once mentioning the camera. Zachary Wignon wrote vividly in his Village Voice rave, but called the interviews "visually uninteresting." He gets points for talking about the image, but I respectfully disagree with this assessment. The film certainly uses an unadorned style, but the way Krauss allows the viewer to perceive gestural clues from the people onscreen yields a complex and extremely subtle viewing experience.
David Edelstein in New York Magazine called it "inconsolably moving" and an "essential film," but wrote little about the filmmaking processes that created these feelings. In Nathan Rabin’s positive and thoughtful review for The Dissolve, he called the film "a conventional documentary" and lamented its lack of detail about Gibbs and even suggested that a fictional remake might be a better way to tell the story.
On the other hand, RogerEbert.com‘s Godfrey Cheshire — a longtime critic who has, more recently, directed documentaries of his own — understood that Krauss "allows us to assay the truth of their accounts from the smallest details of their gestures, intonations and self-presentation." Meanwhile, in his mixed review at Slant, Christopher Grey calls the film "a work of acute psychological journalism" and hints at understanding how the interviews function in the film.
The point here is not to cherry-pick quotes or attack critics for the way they chose to write about "The Kill Team," but to make clear that the reviews of the movie have shown an unbalanced concern with content over form — a problem that is often found in critical writing about documentaries. I can easily admit that Krauss’ film is not radical or particularly progressive in its form, but a deeper understanding of the way it works would require much more discussion about the way the film captures the faces and gestures of its subjects, not just the stories they’re telling. But if their appreciation of "The Kill Team" is incomplete, I can at least say that none of these reviews is particularly damaging to the film.
Dargis’ reviews, however, is another story. I’ve written before about my frustration with the venerable New York Times critic’s writings on documentary, but her review of "The Kill Team" is especially vexing because I believe she missed basic elements of what is happening onscreen. And of course The Times’ status as our most influential review outlet, where a film can become permanently defined by the way its critics characterize it, makes her take even more troubling.
After a basic recap of the plot, Dargis takes issue with Krauss’ focus on Adam Winfield as the main character: "What emerges is a story of victimization, not of the Afghans, but of a fragile, perhaps damaged American," she writes, as if the documentarian should have concentrated on what she wanted to see, rather than the story he chose to tell. This is a common problem with nonfiction film reviews. Critics (and some viewers) often gripe about what isn’t shown, rather than concentrating on what is. It is obviously true that a film could be made focusing solely on the Afghan victims. This just happens to not be that film.
Dargis then cites two interviews with Krauss in order to parse his motivations and his relationship to the Winfield family, then hits the filmmaker hard with this zinger: "That unacknowledged bond seems to get in the way of intelligent choices." One choice she refers to is a sequence that juxtaposes an image of a murdered Afghan with an image of Winfield’s father describing his family’s situation as a "nightmare" while sitting next to a pool, an edit that I would say powerfully creates the sense of moral ambiguity that permeates the film.
The "unacknowledged bond" line apparently refers to Krauss having done videography work for Winfield’s defense lawyer, which is a fair enough point to bring up, but doesn’t make "The Kill Team" a "partisan" film in this viewer’s eyes. I found the look at the Winfield family to be a subtly scathing portrait of a pro-military family who allowed their son to be in this situation in the first place. And whether you buy that or not, there is little doubt that Winfield, whom we see on multiple stages — including in recorded statements and at psychiatric evaluations, venues where some level of social performance is inevitable — is treated as a confused kid, trying to do the right thing, but falling far short of easy-to-digest heroism.
In her final paragraph, referencing Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s classic "Chronicle of A Summer," Dargis says "It’s a given or, rather, should be, that the relationship between documentary filmmakers and their subjects is never neutral, and that it invariably involves layers upon layers of complex negotiation on and off camera." She goes on to indict Krauss by suggesting he should have "pulled back the curtain" on his relationship with Winfield, the particulars of which she evidently gleaned from reading interviews with the director.
This idea that the filmmaker should be present is an old criticism, and it constitutes what I believe is a basic misunderstanding of how people do (or perhaps should) watch documentaries. The filmmaker’s presence is unnecessary and redundant now, more than sixty years after Rouch so precisely worked through these ideas. Much of the work of innovators of the form like Rouch, (which we should be building on, not dwelling on) was done to expose "objectivity" for the false idea that it is and to make clear the idea that the filmmaker (and his or her motivations, prejudices, ideas, etc.) are inescapably present. Whether they appear onscreen or not, the filmmaker is always a "character" in a documentary. Nonfiction films are, by nature, self-reflexive, because the viewer is now aware — or should be, after we’ve been dealing with these issues in academic circles, in cinemas and after our favorite reality TV shows for many years — of the basic manipulations inherent in the form.
Among the devices used in nonfiction, nothing is more transparently staged than the interview, with its artificial mood lighting and unnatural atmosphere. I simply don’t believe that in a post-Jersey Shore confession booth world people watch interviews without thinking about manipulation — either in front of or behind the camera.
Talking heads, when used as Krauss employs them, can build on this inherent reflexivity to add layers of meaning to what may seem like straightforward observations of people answering questions (and behaving while they do so), creating a kind of gestural cinema that says more with the image than it does with the words spoken on the soundtrack. That Dargis and many others miss this is a shame. She’s calling for a transparency that already exists, while missing the way the film uses faces to say more than words.
We documentarians don’t need blindly positive reviews. What we want is a deeper understanding of the form and more thoughtful readings of films that use the essential element of documentary – the act of observing — as "The Kill Team" does. As Kartemquin Films’ Tim Horsburgh said on Twitter, "this is a classic example of how not to review a documentary."