On 22 April 2004, former pro football player turned US Army Ranger, Corporal Pat Tillman was on a patrol searching for Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. A fire fight broke out and, in the fury and confusion of battle, Tillman was killed. The US government proclaimed him a hero and awarded him the Silver Star posthumously. Weeks later, though, new information came to light stating that Pat was killed in a friendly fire incident, prompting his mother, Dannie Tillman, to get to the truth of “The Tillman Story.”
Amir Bar-Lev wrote and directed this tome that tells the too-often occurring story of a soldier accidentally killed by his comrades during battle. The director makes it an in-your-face documentary that uses the fame of its title character to bring to light the cover-up of a killing that should have never happened.
The real hero of “The Tillman Story” is his mother, Dannie. The lady was presented, after the initial investigation into Pat’s death, with over three thousand pages of heavily censored documents that supposedly gave the real facts about the incident. The sheer volume of information would have defeated a lesser person but Dannie Tillman proved to be as strong willed as her son and tenaciously worked to prove how Pat was really killed.
The cover up, says the filmmaker, went to the highest levels with then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his high ranking generals called before a house committee investigating the Tillman killing. These men denied any knowledge of how Pat died and, before the committee, said “I don’t recall” 82 times when questioned. Bar-Lev makes a good case that a major cover-up took place.
“The Tillman Story” is a sad, melancholy film operating on many levels. The untimely death of a brave young man who gave up a multi-million dollar pro football career to serve his country; the frustrating investigation by Dannie to put to rest her son; and, the affect that Pat Tillman’s death had on so many. I give it a B+.
When former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then commander of the U.S. forces in that country, awarded him a Silver Star for bravery in the line of enemy fire. When Tillman's mother Mary discovered after his funeral service that her son had been killed by friendly fire AND that the Army knew about it, she was determined to discover just what happened to her son and hold the U.S. Government accountable for using his death as pro-war propaganda. Director Amir Bar-Lev ("My Kid Could Paint That") follows a California family's search for the truth while painting the portrait of an uncommonly honorable American soldier in "The Tillman Story."
This Sundance hit, written by "The Cove's" Mark Monroe, has been getting more attention for its focus on the Bush administration's use and cover up of a personal tragedy to champion their war agenda, but "The Tillman Story" is actually far more engaging as a portrait of the young football star whose death put that all into motion. A California golden boy raised atheist/agnostic but whose intellectual curiosity and innate humanity had him nonetheless absorb everything from the Koran to the Book of Mormon, who along with his two brothers made art of the 'F' word from young ages, the story of Pat Tillman is constantly surprising. That such an incredible human being ceased to exist because of the stupidity of some overly boisterous troops will make you shake your head in sorrow and disgust.
Bar-Lev weaves his two strands simultaneously, beginning at the end as most know it, then returning to fill in the blanks. Pat's friend Russell Baer tells the story of how he was told to accompany Pat's brother Kevin and Pat's body back to the States but that he should keep his mouth shut about what really happened (Kevin was not present when his brother was killed). The family recalls how the military pushed for Pat to have a full blown funeral at Arlington National Cemetery, something Pat had specifically stated he did not want. We see the family, including Pat's wife, childhood sweetheart Marie, participate in honors on University and NFL footballs fields, everyone clamoring for a piece of their hero. Then the bomb drops. Five weeks after Pat's death a press conference is held to announce that an investigation has uncovered that Tillman was not killed by the Taliban, but by bullets from his fellow soldiers. Boxes upon boxes of investigation binders, 3,000 pages in all, are delivered to Pat's mom at her request. With the help of retired special-ops soldier Stan Goff, Pat's mom went through the entire document, much of it censored, and put many of the puzzle pieces together. What she learned was that Pat had not been killed in a 'usual' 'fog of war' scenario. Far from it. And there had been a cover up, beginning with the burning of Pat's body armor at the scene.
Bar-Lev notes an incredible irony, a parallel story about Government media fraud, in relating the story of Jessica Lynch. Rescuing her was Pat Tillman's first mission in Iraq. He and others were kept waiting for hours until a camera crew arrived. The media painted her in a heroic standoff and she was paraded down streets upon her return home, but it was later revealed that she never even fired her weapon.
Home video of Tillman's battalion shows a bunch of rowdy, mostly nineteen year-old yahoos prepping for an exercise as he wonders off alone in contemplation, as was his nature. The battalion's 'runt, the retiring Bryan O'Neal, was taken under Pat's wing (and was with him when he died). Maybe Pat related to O'Neal as an unusually short, 5' 11" linebacker. Pat was always unusual though. When he went pro with the Cardinals as a safety, he didn't own a car of a cell phone. He rode a bicycle to the stadium. We learn that when Pat married Marie, both she and Kevin were the only family members who knew he intended to enlist. He had made up his mind on 9/12/2001. His interview from that day, again against any of his personal wishes, was made public to add to his mythic heroism. In fact, after his first 1.5 years in Iraq, Pat was more than disillusioned about the war. He could have opted for an honorable discharge, but the man had committed to 3 years and Pat Tillman kept his commitments.
The Tillman boys propensity for swearing is almost fondly recalled by elderly neighbors and admitted by mom, and it's is interesting background because of two statements made right before and after Pat's death. When Tillman realized they were being shot at by their own, he told O'Neal to get down and screamed 'I'm Pat F'in Tillman!' to the men below. At his funeral service, televised and attended by 2,000, Pat's youngest brother Richard, in response to sentiments stated by numerous officials and celebrity speakers, got up in front of the crowd and announced 'He's not with God. He's f&%*'ed.' Later, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, Pat's Army Ranger commander, would accuse the Tillman family's doggedness in pursuing the truth the result of their religious beliefs, because they could take no comfort in Pat having gone to a better place.
Bar-Lev follows the story up through the 2007 Congressional Hearings, where everyone from 3 star generals to Rumsfeld himself suddenly had huge lapses in recollection. The memo regarding the truth about Pat's death was P4 status however, meaning everyone from his commanding officer up through the chain of command to Bush himself had seen it. What Bar-Lev fails to background, however, is why the Army publicly recanted its own story five weeks after the fact back in 2004. Even if the filmmaker didnt' know, some speculation would have been somewhat illuminating.
The cover up aspect of "The Tillman Story," which is surely what the family would have hoped to highlight going public here, while notable is eclipsed by the biographical aspects of their extraordinary son. This is such a complex tale with so many still unanswered questions it just about demands a sequel.