The Tillman Story
Pat Tillman (left) and brother Kevin.

Theatrical Release Date: 09/03/2010
Director: Amir Bar-Lev

Many sports fans are familiar with the name of Pat Tillman. A safety for the Arizona Cardinals from 1998-2001, he passed on an NFL contract extension to enlist in the Marines. After finishing one tour of duty in Iraq, he turned down a back channel understanding between the military and the NFL which could have seen him return to football so he could continue serving his 3 year commitment. Tragically, after his deployment to Afghanistan, he was killed while on patrol.

The initial story was that his unit had come under attack from an ambush, Tillman charged up a hill to protect his brothers-in-arms, and Taliban soldiers had shot and killed him. Tillman was honored as the hero he was and the Bush administration used the publicized circumstances of his death to help deflect flagging American support for war. For those who followed the news, five weeks later a different story came out.

While there might have been an ambush which started the chain of events, it was friendly fire that claimed Tillman’s life, not enemy bullets. From the moment the shooting stopped, military officials on the ground in Afghanistan and government officials in Washington went into spin mode. We had lost the poster boy and, mired neck deep in rising criticism of the motivations for going to war, there was just no way the administration was going to allow the public, or Tillman’s family, learn the truth.

These events are the impetus for director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, “The Tillman Story”. Part biography, part finger pointing at the military and government officials involved in disseminating misinformation, the film attempts to enrage and irritate the audience because of the injustices perpetrated not only on the Tillmans, but the American public.

To that end, the film succeeds. There is no doubt that all but the most die hard of Bush supporters will leave the theater feeling angry about our elected officials using Tillman’s death as war propaganda and sad for the family left without one of their sons. However, what’s lacking is a place to channel that anger and sadness. What am I supposed to do with a renewed feeling of ire and loss? Bar-Lev never addresses what can be done and it’s a shame because a film this powerful could motivate its audience quite easily (and maybe its use as propaganda towards full disclosure from the military concerning soldiers’ deaths would bring a small bit of justice).

The film also suffers from its dual narrative. It is part Pat Tillman biography (and I’m sure some would say it’s more of a canonization), part anti-administration for its propagandizing of war related events, no matter the actual truth behind the initial sound bytes. This might have worked better had Bar-Lev not decided to thrown in the similar cover-up surrounding Jessica Lynch; a soldier thought to have been captured and in need of rescue by special forces – only to have the actual story be that she was in an Iraqi hospital and by the time US forces were sent in to rescue her, all of the Iraqi soldiers had already left. We could have sent a taxi, let alone well armed troops. Once we learn this though, Lynch is never mentioned again, and there are no other examples provided in relation to the military or the government spinning specific soldiers’ stories to boost the war effort (sorry for the alliteration, this time I didn’t mean it).

I’m always a little leery of situations being painted completely in terms of black and white but the more information one has on hand, the better they can decide how to incorporate that knowledge into their own lives. And like with all documentaries, one must bring a critical eye to the finished product as the only objective dissemination of information should come from news departments (and that’s an entirely different argument).

So, even with my reservations surrounding how Bar-Lev put it all together, “The Tillman Story” still serves as a powerful reminder of the sacrifice thousands of young men and women are making and stands as one of the better documentaries of 2010, earning a 4 out of 5.