Amir Bar-Lev’s “The Tillman Story” is a riveting account of how a soldier’s death in Afghanistan was spun into a web of public lies. When pro football star turned post-9/11 Army enlistee Pat Tillman was killed in the course of duty, the embarrassing actual circumstances were covered up and turned into a flag-waving story of heroism that the Bush administration happily — and knowingly — used for propaganda purposes. The Tillman family’s refusal to accept the official story led to disgraceful admissions — yet, so far, no repercussions for those who perpetrated the lie. Theatrical, broadcast and further fest exposure are assured.
Told much more via straight reportage than Bar-Lev’s fascinating “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Tillman Story” mixes talking heads and archival footage into a detective story of escalatingly scandalous proportions. No matter one’s political bent, the blatant misconduct by grunts, senior officers and politicos alike is terribly disturbing.
Small (at 5’10”) by football standards, but an all-star defensive back, Tillman walked away from his multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals in May 2002, clearly feeling some moral duty yet refusing to discuss his motivations publicly. Younger brother Kevin also joined the Army Rangers, winding up in the same platoon.
Even beyond his sports celebrity, Tillman was an unusual enlistee — a fan of Noam Chomsky, he’d excelled academically as well as athletically, hailing from a Northern California family that instilled old-school liberal values. He was outspoken yet modest — a natural leader who never bullied and enjoyed encouraging underdogs. (The only person who casts doubt on his character here is, suspiciously, the sole platoon member who still sticks by the Army’s latest official story.)
Tillman also opposed the war in Iraq, and was further disillusioned by what he saw in his first tour of duty there. Nonetheless, he refused a secret deal between the government and NFL that would have allowed an early return to football, feeling it his duty to serve the full three years signed up for. His second tour was in Afghanistan, and during a reconnaissance sweep along the Pakistan border, he was shot to death.
The Army’s story — initially believed by the Tillman family and leapt on by the media — was that he’d heroically put himself in the line of Taliban fire to save other soldiers during an ambush.
But even as the tale was exploited to drum up support for the war, questionable details troubled the Tillmans. Mother Dannie’s dogged pursuit of answers only raised more questions; finally, the Army admitted that Tillman might have died via accidental “fratricide,” or friendly fire. It’s possible there were no enemy insurgents present at all.
It was only when father Pat Sr. wrote a letter accusing the military of fraud that a second internal investigation was launched. As the pic notes, however, high-level officials simply found a midlevel scapegoat, then seemingly lied their way through a Congressional hearing, and excused themselves from further culpability. While precise circumstances may never be known. Tillman’s death appears to be the result of gross negligence at best, and perhaps far worse than that, with the most damning account relating that a fellow solder — or soldiers — shot at Tillman for up to a full minute, from a plain-sight distance of 40 yards.
It’s an appalling story, yet at the same time somehow affirming: The unconventional Tillmans are an admirable bunch, and in choosing the wrong family to lie to, authorities wound up exposed, albeit largely unpunished.
While no senior officers — except the one scapegoated — speak in the archival clips, most of Tillman’s fellow soldiers give damning testimony of the official story. Retired special-ops Stan Goff provides insight into how the U.S. military can use bureaucracy, language and evasion to bury uncomfortable truths.
Assembly is first-rate. Pic was retitled just before Sundance from its awkward original, “I’m Pat _______ Tillman.” That phrase, with missing expletive, constituted the subject’s last words as he yelled to identify himself to those shooting at him.