Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story is a heartbreaking and profoundly troubling documentary filled with unanswered questions and hidden truths. Like his previous film, My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story is about an investigation that, in the end, does not come to a satisfying conclusion. In this case, of course, the stakes are much higher.
Pat Tillman served as a convenient symbol of American heroism and sacrifice in the wake of 9/11. For reasons he refused to make public, Tillman gave up a successful career in the NFL to join the military and fight in Afghanistan, alongside his brother Kevin. As the documentary shows, the national media loved this narrative, and when Tillman was killed in 2004, and initial reports stated that he had died while heroically rescuing the his unit from a Taliban ambush, he became even more of an icon for his incredible sacrifice. Even when bits of the truth started to come out, indicating that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, all the questions raised by his needless death seemed overwhelmed by the more appealing and uncomplicated story of his heroism.
Bar-Lev’s film starts out with the narrative we all know, but then goes deeper into the story. While his investigation of what actually happened on the day Tillman was killed doesn’t reach any solid conclusions (though there is little evidence to suggest that his unit was ever even ambushed by enemy fighters), the film looks beyond the simplistic facade of the “hero” that’s been foisted on Pat Tillman, and gives the audience a deeper understanding of the complex man Tillman was.
Footage of Pat’s younger brother, Richard, at the memorial service, drinking a Guinness and rebuking celebrity eulogists like John McCain and Maria Shriver with a heartfelt, profanity-laced rant asking people to respect Pat’s atheism, gives insight into both the essential falseness of the simplistic story we were told, and the resolve of Tillman’s family to honor his memory. That resolve ends up manifesting itself in the dogged pursuit of the truth in the face of a mendacious bureaucracy by Pat’s father, Pat Sr., and especially his mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman.
Bar-Lev presents us with a broad range of interesting interviewees, from family members to Pat’s fellow soldiers, all of whom come across as complex personalities with their own motivation for seeing things the way they do.
The filmmaker manages to restore the truth of Tillman’s humanity, and to make a damning case that the military and government at the highest levels were complicit in covering up the cause of Tillman’s death, so that it could be used to influence public opinion in their favor. While his investigation uncovers no significant factual clarification of how Tillman died, and while his document of the congressional hearings into the alleged cover-up end in frustration, Bar-Lev’s film is still a substantial and critical document of post-9/11 America. The Tillman Story goes beyond showing how Tillman’s narrative was twisted to achieve certain ends, and illustrates the eagerness of the American public to embrace a mythology rather than face the true horror of war.
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- Released: 2009
- Rating: R
- Review: Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story is a heartbreaking and profoundly troubling documentary filled with unanswered questions and hidden truths. Like his previous film, My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story is about an investigation that, in the end, does… (more)