In 2002, NFL player Pat Tillman left the game and joined the Army Rangers. Deployed first to Iraq and then Afghanistan, Tillman was killed in a friendly-fire incident in April of 2004. But that fact only came to light later, after the government and military had turned Tillman into a poster-boy for patriotism and awarded him the Silver Star. It was only through the efforts of his family--primarily mother Mary--that the truth came to be known. Using interviews with Tillmanís family and fellow soldiers, documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) explores the initial incident, the propaganda storm that followed, and the Tillman familyís tireless efforts to bring the real story to light.
I donít see that many documentaries; Iíd rather read a three-hundred-page book on a subject than see a two-hour movie attempt to cover the same ground. But there are some subjects I like to see covered in as many ways as possible, and the story of the government and militaryís disgraceful handling of Pat Tillmanís death is fast becoming one of them. That being the case, I wasnít about to miss this movie. Had I somehow missed it, I would have been more than a little upset, as this is an excellent--albeit not exhaustive--look at Tillmanís death, the ensuing cover-up and web of lies, and his familyís attempts to uncover the truth.
Let me put it bluntly: As much as I already knew about this story, this movie still pissed me off. Reading about what happened is one thing; hearing Tillmanís family and fellow soldiers discuss it is something else. These people have been, to put it mildly, wronged. They were lied to, their grieving process was co-opted by a government looking to sway public opinion, and their lost loved oneís wishes were ignored. Tillmanís exact reasons for enlisting have, as he preferred, never been revealed. But itís safe to say he didnít enlist out of ego. He didnít want to be a symbol, but the powers that be (or were) did their best to turn him into one, never suspecting theyíd crossed a family willing to go to the ends of the earth in a quest for justice.
This story drips with irony. The government lied in pursuit of its own interest, tried to make a martyr out of man who wanted to be anything but, cranked up the propaganda machine, refused to admit any wrongdoing when called out, offered up a scapegoat in hopes of putting a lid on the controversy, and then passed the buck during a farce of a hearing instigated by a Congressional oversight committee. Call me crazy, but some of those things sound like the work of the very sort of entrenched power the war on terror was meant to combat. That may be a knee-jerk reaction, but thatís the thought that ran through my mind as I watched footage of President Bush spouting what amounted to rah-rah nonsense at a state dinner in the weeks shortly after Tillmanís death, this after the military had already released a memo stating it was a friendly-fire incident, a memo the Presidentís speechwriters had read.
The guilty parties are made to look even more reprehensible by the fact that Tillman didnít need anyone to spin some sort of myth around him. Hereís a guy who played a game simply for the love of it (were I an ambulatory brick wall like he was, able to knock a receiver into the middle of next week, Iíd probably love it, too), was devoted to his family, married his high-school sweetheart, and was completely guileless. Finding someone like that in this day and age is a miracle. Thatís just the way he was, and he didnít think himself anything special, and why should he? Shouldnít we all be so humble and selfless? He shouldnít be lauded for being a good human being. Why laud someone for doing what should all strive to be? But given the world we live in, itís hard not to want to praise him.
Given its subject matter and the way itís constructed, the movie could be described as a Capra-esque legal thriller. Itís a David-and-Goliath tale in which the plot unexpectedly twists as various points. In her quest to get to the truth, Mary Tillman pored over literally thousands of pages of documents, many of them redacted to the point of incomprehensibility. But with dogged determination and the help of a retired soldier, she was able to piece it together and expose the government and militaryís unconscionable malfeasance. And Tillmanís lawyer father, Patrick, Sr., fired off an angry missive to those he believed responsible, carefully outlining inconsistencies in the official story, accusing them of lying, and ending the correspondence with a profane valediction, which finally got Congress involved. And thereís even a mysterious figure responsible for leaking the original ďfriendly fireĒ memo to the press, which proved to be a major turning point in the story.
Through no fault of anyone involved, the movie isnít able to tell the whole story. This saga has continued to unfold since the movie was completed, with more information coming to the surface. (Thankfully, the movie doesnít bother with the numerous conspiracy theories suggesting Tillman was assassinated.) So the stopping point for the movie isnít the actual stopping point for this particular piece of history. (Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer wrote a book on this subject, and he updated it for the paperback release. It covers some of the later developments the movie couldnít, and itís worth checking out for anyone who wants to know more.) Bar-Lev can be faulted, however, for his unfortunate decision to put some of the participants into Unsolved Mysteries-style recreations, which donít really work. I always find these things rather silly, and Iíd have rather seen a simple talking-head shot of Mary Tillman discussing her efforts to piece together the mountain of paperwork than a somewhat awkward shot of her pretending to be on the phone, which just seems unnecessary.
As I think I just proved, itís hard to discuss this movie without devolving into whatís more or less a reaction to the events themselves. But while Bar-Lev has been accused of being a left-wing proselytizer, I donít think this is political-agenda filmmaking. Bar-Levís position isnít exactly a mystery (if nothing else does, the song he chooses to accompany the closing credits makes it clear), but he never injects himself or his opinions into the narrative. Given the subject matter, the movieís as journalistically straightforward, clinical, and objective as it could be.
Half of this story is infuriating beyond belief, but the other half is rousing and inspiring. And even if the Tillman family had to settle for what could only be termed a Pyrrhic victory, their refusal to give up is indescribably touching. Much like Pat Tillman himself, I doubt theyíd want accolades for doing what they thought was right and just, but they deserve them. So does this movie.
The quality of the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer varies from scene to scene. The interviews, which look to have been captured on digital video, look good, but pre-existing footage and news clips run the gamut from okay to poor. Some of the analog-source footage looks quite bad, especially that which has had its aspect ratio changed to fit the movieís framing. But that being said, this is, under the circumstances, probably the best the movie could look.
The only audio option is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The mix utilizes only the front channels, locking dialogue and narration (the latter supplied by Josh Brolin) into the center and spreading music to the stereo channels. Much like the video, everything recorded for the movie sounds fine, but other sources vary wildly. English and English SDH subtitles are available.
The only extra is a commentary by director Amir Bar-Lev. Itís an okay--nothing more, nothing less--track, giving some idea of how the movie was pieced together and shaped into is final form.
Much like Hoop Dreams and Crumb, The Tillman Story didnít get any love from those bozos at the Academy. Thatís not bad company for this must-see film to be in.