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The Tillman Story (The Weinstein Company, R)

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Reportedly, Bar-Lev wanted to call it I’m Pat Fucking Tillman after the last words of the man himself. My own suggestion would be Blasting Through Bullshit: The Pat Tillman Cover-up.


The only thing I don’t like about The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev’s searing documentary about Pat Tillman and the cover-up following his death by friendly fire, is the title. Seriously, The Tillman Story sounds like an inspirational biopic packaged for thought-free consumption, and nothing could be further from the truth of this documentary. Reportedly, Bar-Lev wanted to call it I’m Pat Fucking Tillman after the last words of the man himself, but changed it due to the possibility of the title words being used out of order. My own suggestion would be Blasting Through Bullshit: The Pat Tillman Cover-up.

I think that’s more profanity than I’ve used in print in the last several years and I promise there won’t be any more in this review. But be forewarned: the f-word gets quite a workout in The Tillman Story (it’s the only reason I can think of for the film’s R rating), and seldom has that fine old Anglo-Saxon expletive been put to better use.

You probably already know that Pat Tillman was a star football player at Arizona State and then in the NFL, and that he turned down a multi-million dollar contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. You almost certainly know that he was killed in action in Afghanistan and was eulogized by then-president George Bush as a hero and representative of all the young men and women who have died serving their country. Finally, you may know that the Army eventually acknowledged that Tillman was killed by friendly fire (i.e., shot by American troops) but attributed his death to confusion resulting from “the fog of war.”

A few things you may not know: Pat Tillman never wanted to be considered a hero and indicated in writing that he did not want a military funeral. The day after his death three Army officials came to his home to pressure his widow into signing papers which would override his written directive. Tillman’s uniform and body armor were burned, presumably to hide evidence that he had been killed by American bullets. There is no evidence that there was any enemy attack at all, nor was there any “fog of war” that could explain his death.

That’s not the story the Army wanted to tell about their poster child (it certainly wouldn’t help recruiting efforts), so almost immediately they took action to suppress the truth, devising an elaborate cover-up into the highest ranks of the military and very likely all the way to the White House. Unfortunately for them, the Tillman family could not be easily bought off; they wanted to know what happened to their son and could see that the explanation they were being offered didn’t add up.

Much of the information presented in The Tillman Story is publicly available, so one of the wonders of Bar-Lev’s documentary (scripted by Mark Monroe, who also wrote the Oscar-winning The Cove) is how vivid and suspenseful a story he tells. Even more skillful is the way Bar-Lev, without taking anything away from his main subjects— the needless death of a brave and honorable young man and the calculated dishonesty running straight up the chain of command—also finds ways inject moments of humor that prevent the film from becoming either a slog or a screed (I’m sure Tillman would have hated either). It’s really hard to keep a straight face, for instance, at the spectacle of high-ranking generals, as well as Donald Rumsfeld (then Secretary of Defense), stricken by monumental cases of amnesia rivaled only by former attorney general Alberto Gonzales when asked about the P4 memo sent four days before Tillman’s televised memorial service. The memo from Lt. General Stanley McChrystal warned that Tillman was very likely killed by friendly fire. You might even start to wonder how they could possibly hold positions of responsibility with such deficient memories.

Like Bar-Levy’s previous My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story is an object lesson in how to tell a gripping story using traditional documentary techniques including talking heads interviews, archival footage and narration (by Josh Brolin). Besides members of the Tillman family, major informants include retired special operations officer Stan Goff, who has a lot to say about what can happen when young men have powerful weapons and are itching to use them, and two of Tillman’s fellow Army Rangers.

The ultimate subject of The Tillman Story may be the yawning gap between reality and the presentation of that reality by the military. Or to take it even further, the difference between the apparent reality of any media version of events and the actual reality that lies behind the presentation. Bar-Lev bookends The Tillman Story with outtakes of Pat Tillman doing his NFL television introduction and throughout the film presents numerous examples, including video footage that the army gave the Tillman family to support the official explanation of how their son was killed, of how the media is used sometimes to tell an outright lie, sometimes to merely shade the truth to some purpose. It’s a point that has been made before but one worth keeping in mind, particularly in our media-saturated world. | Sarah Boslaugh

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