The Tillman Story

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Tillman Story,” documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev’s elegy for misunderstood NFL defensive back turned U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, manages the considerable feat of simultaneously confounding liberals and conservatives who have participated in the mythmaking and hero worship surrounding the slain soldier. Substantially better than Bar-Lev’s 2007 feature “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” benefits from a wealth of archival material, from clips of Tillman on the field for the Arizona State University Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals to the ghastly 2007 hearing in which Donald Rumsfeld and a handful of generals repeatedly claim an inability to recall whether or when they read Stanley McChrystal’s April 29, 2004 memo that warned of the likelihood of fratricide as the cause of Tillman’s death.

Tillman’s death by “friendly fire” – surely one of the most dazzling oxymoronic terms in the entire arsenal of military-speak – invited a bizarre cover-up that saw panicked leadership deliberately lying about the circumstances of April 22, 2004, when Tillman was fatally shot in the head in Afghanistan. Bar-Lev alternates between the construction of a personal portrait of Tillman and the investigation into the government’s decision to withhold information from Tillman’s family members. Neither story feels entirely complete, but the palpable and mounting sense of frustration that clouds the latter issue steers the film along its course.

In addition to the archival photos and videos, Bar-Lev interviews many of the people closest to Pat Tillman. Family members, including Tillman’s mother Mary (known as Dannie), father Pat Sr., brother Richard, and wife Marie appear on-camera. Pat’s brother Kevin, who was serving in the same unit with his brother when Pat fell, declined an opportunity to speak, but can be seen and heard delivering a harsh rebuke during a visit to Capitol Hill.

While Tillman’s incredulous, grieving mother articulately represents the voice of raw familial outrage at the events following her son’s death, retired soldier Stan Goff emerges as the most fascinating of the film’s talking heads. Vaguely channeling the seen-it-all weariness of a “Miami Blues”-era Fred Ward, Goff flays the military leadership responsible for the post-mortem snafu, choosing his words with refreshing candor and grim wit. An echo of Tillman himself, Goff demonstrates exactly how it is possible to simultaneously be a soldier, a patriot, and a skeptic and critic of the government.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” covers much of the same territory as John Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory,” the gripping bestseller published after Mary Tillman’s tribute “Boots on the Ground by Dusk.” Despite some kind of falling out between Krakauer and the Tillman family, “Where Men Win Glory” pushes harder and digs deeper than Bar-Lev’s documentary. Krakauer identifies the triggerman who almost certainly ended Tillman’s life, and makes sensible the thousands of pages of documentation that the movie must necessarily condense into feature-length running time. Both the filmmaker and the author grasp the irony, and the miscarriage of justice, that billowed from the American war machine despite Tillman’s clearly expressed wishes that he never be used as a propagandistic recruiting tool, and for this reason both texts are worth the effort.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/6/10.

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