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Film Review: The Tillman Story

The Tillman Story (2010; Directed by Amir Bar-Lev)

There’s something about the story of Pat Tillman that is quintessentially American. Indeed, there are many things: the entwined masculine conduits of self-aggrandizement and national patriotic display of professional sports (particularly football) and imperialistic war, a sense of daring, frontier-defining adventure, a tight-knit if fractured family unit built on affection, intellect, and moral principle, monolithic institutions unworthy of public trust, and an officially-manipulated popular resort to propagandistic mythmaking to justify wrongdoing. The Tillman Story frames these thematic elements as part and parcel of a general narrativizing of the life of Pat Tillman, by those who respectively want to use him, profit off of him, and love and honour his memory and personality. If the Bush Administration and the U.S. Army used Tillman’s death in Afghanistan as a propaganda myth, consider The Tillman Story a pushback countermyth by those close to him outraged by that myth.

For those unfamiliar with Tillman’s story, Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary provides a fragmentary synopsis that I will attempt to condense. A free-spirited but intelligent son of a lawyer and school teacher (now divorced) with two brothers, Patrick Daniel Tillman also proved to be athletically gifted, climbing up, hiking around, and jumping off any prominences he could around California. He played football too, and very well; undersized for a secondary player, his incredible hustle and reckless abandon as a hitter more than made up for it as he starred for Arizona State in the NCAA and then the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. After 9/11, Tillman had a deep change of heart about his life’s direction and left behind his multi-million dollar pro football contract to enlist in the United States military along with his brother Kevin.

An Army Ranger, Tillman served several tours of duty, including in Iraq. In April 2004, while on patrol in a dangerous canyon in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, Tillman was shot and killed by friendly fire by members of his own unit. Lionized as a hero and quickly embraced as a propaganda godsend by the image-conscious White House and Army command, Tillman was given a televised funeral and a Silver Star for bravery all while the true, tragic, and potentially damaging circumstances behind his death were covered up and lied about, even to his own grieving family: he died in an enemy ambush, the nation and family were told, heroically defending his comrades. The Tillman clan, especially his indomitable mother, refused to accept the spin and campaigned the authorities tirelessly to reveal the truth about what happened to her son and admit culpability for his killing if that is what the truth demanded.

As the title indicates, this a film more about the story (stories) around Tillman than strictly about the man himself. Jon Krakauer’s contemporaneous book about the same life and events gives a better and fuller sense of who Pat Tillman was: a mix of physical prowess and daring, a profound sense of intellectual curiosity and moral rectitude, and a warmth and vigorous empathy that won over every person he met. Bar-Lev’s documentary is about how that man was lost in a flood of jingoistic simplification of a most American sort and how a similarly American determination to redress certain wrongs (at least those suffered by the privileged) set the record straight, if somewhat unsatisfactorily, in the end.

Those closest to Tillman at home and abroad get the lion’s share of the screen time, and their views drive the narrative: his mother Mary and father Pat, Sr., his no-bullshit younger brother, his wife, and members of his Army Ranger unit, in particular Russell Baer and Bryan O’Neal, who were with him in his final moments on the canyon ridge in Afghanistan (Kevin, who was closest to Pat, does not appear except in archival footage). Stan Goff, a former Special Forces soldier turned blogger who aided Mary in sorting through the mountain of official and mostly-redacted documents relating to the deadly incident which took Pat’s life, also provides keen insight into the U.S. Army mentality at the core of both the fratricide and its cover-up.

The Tillman Story is more like several interlocking stories, flashing back and forth through time and covering Pat’s youth, football career, army enlistment and experiences, and the aftermath of his death and its mythologization. It’s also several kinds of stories, generically speaking: elements of biography with a strong detective investigation streak (especially in the treatment of the friendly fire incident), ending in the deflating, anticlimactic courtroom-type drama of the congressional hearing that Mary Tillman’s efforts (and an angry letter from Pat, Sr.) managed to earn. This is a sad spectacle indeed, as the family’s righteous indignation at being mislead about their beloved son, brother, and husband’s fate contrasts sharply with the committee’s investigative impotence in the face of a cascade of prevarications, denials, and convenient lapses of memory by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and various multi-starred generals in connection with a widely disseminated high-level memo concerning the official spin around Tillman’s death.

This sequence boasts a whiff of gotcha-style documentary journalism, but embraces the sense of dissatisfaction by the principle figures instead and works better for it. Bar-Lev also chooses to moderate his film’s criticisms of the military and the government somewhat. He provides a soapbox for speculations about over-excited young men with guns making a major mistake which the brass and political arm tries to spin and distort as a net positive while the public eye is focused on the situation. But The Tillman Story tiptoes carefully around implications and accusations, some of them made by Mary Tillman herself, that Pat Tillman was deliberately targeted for elimination. Ostensibly connected to Tillman’s intention to flout the administration’s foreign policy by meeting with noted anti-war public intellectual Noam Chomsky after completing his service, this conspiratorial assassination angle is gestured at but never explicitly stated. It doesn’t seem terribly convincing, and the adapted, loose fog-of-war theory fits more of the details of the fratricide incident itself.

The climactic note of dissatisfaction overrides all. however. Even the closing meta-analysis of the narrativization and myth-making around Pat Tillman’s life rings a touch hollow in terms of the film’s actual application of it; it’s much less self-aware about the way that storytelling warps memory and identity than, say, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. The Tillman Story takes note of a key public relations episode in the Iraq War that anticipated the propaganda blitz around Tillman’s death that he had a peripheral connection with: the made-for-television rescue of Jessica Lynch, which the Army Rangers unit including Tillman and Baer provided backup for. The Lynch episode acts as a form of foreshadowing for the much more unforgivable distortions around Tillman’s death, and it also doubles as Tillman’s final disillusionment from the foreign military campaigning that seems to have motivated his patriotic enlistment in the first place. It’s a telling case of the forces of American power, which are always already predicated on image creation and dissemination, taking control of one of its citizens’ stories for its own ends.

This, ultimately, is Tillman’s story, and The Tillman Story works hard and mostly smart to readjust the trajectory of the narrative of its subject. It seeks to puncture the overblown nationalistic platitudes around Pat Tillman enough times to sink the top-heavy conservative myth they support. Pat’s younger brother Richard Tillman speaks about the man who was lost with profane, blazing directness and honesty that pops the engorged balloon of conventional, ritualized grief established by a parade of distinguished speakers at his funeral. It’s an echo of his elder brother’s famous last words, a strident (even desperate) re-assertion of his identity: “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” Both Tillman brothers speak for the film as a whole.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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  1. June 13, 2015 at 12:41 pm

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