Documentary follows a dead soldier's family as it hunts for real answers about how he died.
“By the way, Pat isn’t with God. He’s fucking dead,” shouts his kid brother, swigging a beer and staring down the likes of John McCain and Maria Shriver after a barrage of photo-op eulogies and canned pieties about God and country at a memorial service for Corporal Pat Tillman, the linebacker-cum-soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2004. “He wasn’t religious,” the younger Tillman laughs, taking another pull off his brew and wandering away.
It’s a moment emblematic of The Tillman Story, director Amir Bar-Lev’s attempt to wrestle Tillman’s death away from the mythmakers and demagogues. Pat Tillman was a natural propaganda figure, a smart, good-looking jock who turned his back on a starting position for the Arizona Cardinals to enlist shortly after 9/11, ditching a multimillion-dollar NFL contract to serve his country.
Tillman was a tricky figure. An avowed atheist who read the Book of Mormon, the Koran and Noam Chomsky for his own edification, his was a restless, questioning spirit, not the type who fits into easy narratives. Nonetheless, Tillman’s enlistment became a media event, complete with congratulatory notes from Donald Rumsfeld. During his first tour in Iraq, Tillman saw firsthand the mendacity behind our current Middle East engagements as he was dragged into the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch in an elaborate publicity stunt.
Tillman got his head blown off during a friendly-fire clusterfuck in which at least one of his compatriots still insists involved no enemy combatants whatsoever, but that isn’t what many would have you believe. The official story that came down from on high involved an ambush by the Taliban and all sorts of derring-do and heroism in which our icon was last glimpsed screaming: “I’m fuckin’ Pat Tillman!” seconds before he was killed.
The Tillman Story chronicles the tough-minded, tireless attempts by Pat’s family to figure out what exactly happened that day in April of 2004, and the stonewalling, full-of-shit government responses they received. This was the movie that was supposed to bring down General Stanley McChrystal, but he got drunk in front of a Rolling Stone reporter and took care of that all on his own.
McChrystal wrote a memo covering up the circumstances of Tillman’s death, and the most excruciating moments of The Tillman Story involve watching four-star generals and Rumsfeld himself pretending that they “can’t remember” ever seeing it before a Congressional oversight committee.
Bar-Lev hits all the expected notes. It’s not a particularly well-made documentary, but it doesn’t need to be. His most affecting directorial flourish comes in the final moments, allowing all the participants to stare down the camera with accusatory glares while Neil Young wails on the soundtrack.
Pat Tillman’s family is remarkable, constantly undercutting the cut-and-dried, much more favorable official story in a doomed, years-long attempt to bring out the actual truth. Tillman’s father finally writes a pages-long letter to the government outlining the countless lies they’ve been told over the years and pointing to every example of evidence gathered along the way.
“I eventually told these people that I didn’t think very highly of them,” he sheepishly admits, alluding to the final words of the letter: “FUCK YOU!”
There’s been much consternation from a lot of people (including narrator Josh Brolin) over The Tillman Story receiving an R rating for language, which will likely hinder the movie’s theatrical box-office take and limit its screenings in schools, but I’d argue that the curse words are essential. The kind of phony lip service and empty non-answers the Tillman family have been given deserve nothing but expletives. Fuck these people.
Director: Amir Ben-Lev
Running time: 94 minutes