Family courage trumps political cover-up in excellent ‘Tillman Story’
Imagine that you are a Gold Star mother. Because your son was a famous athlete before he enlisted, his death prompts a media frenzy during which you and your shell-shocked family are required to act out your private anguish on the public stage while an A-List roster of high-ranking military leaders, politicians, and pundits embroider the tale of your son’s heroics in battle. But only weeks later, details begin to emerge that expose the official Army report as an obscene pack of lies. And even as you delve deeper into the unsavory truth, the military labors to spin the death of your beloved child into a “recruitment poster.”
This is what happened to Mary “Dannie” Tillman, the intrepid San Jose woman whose son, Pat Tillman, gave up a lucrative NFL contract to go fight—and die—in the Middle East. Mary Tillman and her struggle to uncover the truth is the center of the excellent documentary, The Tillman Story, by filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev. It may be a story you think you know, even a movie you think you’ll dread; but you’ll be surprised. Bar-Lev deftly employs suspense and humor, as well as rage, in his portrait of one raucous, loving family’s persistence and courage in refusing to be bought off by a “comforting lie” while struggling to understand exactly how and why their son was killed in service to Uncle Sam.
Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan in April of 2004 is front-page news. The story is promulgated in every media outlet from local news stations to Pentagon press conferences to the eulogies at the funeral broadcast live from San Jose. A fearsome defensive safety with the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman is lauded for “taking the fight to the enemy,” leading a platoon up a hill during a Taliban ambush, a valiant poster boy for American honor and patriotism. There’s only one small problem, Mary Tillman tells us. “What they said happened didn’t happen. They made up a story.”
Five weeks later, information leaks out that Tillman was killed by “friendly fire.” The Army back-pedals strenuously, insisting this “tragic accident” in no way diminishes the luster of Pat’s heroism (a grim example of what observer Stan Goff calls “the perception-management aspect” of war), but the Tillman family stoically refuses to accept anything less than the truth. When it finally dribbles out (mostly in the testimony of surviving solders who were there), it’s a horrifying and outrageous indictment not only of “gross negligence” in the military, and the venality of the conspiracy to cover it up, but the entire climate of warfare as a proving ground for masculinity and mettle spun in military PR since time began.
What remains abundantly true is the character of Pat Tillman himself—the man, not the icon. Adored leader of two younger brothers, he was a physical daredevil who loved games, but shunned the spotlight. On a football scholarship to Arizona State Universiry, he was a long-haired California hippie in Arizona who read Emerson and Noam Chomsky, didn’t own a car or a cell phone, and biked to work at the stadium.
Moved to join the Army Rangers after 9-11, he was first deployed to Iraq, where he particpated in the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch. (The operation was delayed until the camera crew could get there), and came to believe “This war is fucking illegal.” Still, he determined to honor his commitment, coming home to marry his childhood sweetheart, Marie, before being shipped off to his second, fateful tour in Afghanistan. Days after his death, when Army brass tried to muscle Marie into signing off on a burial at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, she had the presence of mind to refuse; according to a document Pat smuggled out to her just weeks before his death, he didn’t want to become a “PR tool” for the military.
Which is exactly what the military tried to do. One of the film’s many poignant moments occurs when Kevin Tillman, speaking at the Congressional hearing investigating his brother’s death, accuses the U. S. government of trying to turn their personal family tragedy into “an opportunity” to glamorize combat. In his portrait of the indomitable Tillman family, Bar-Lev presents a towering profile in courage that has nothing to do with the false glory of war.
THE TILLMAN STORY ★★★1/2 (out of four)
A film by Amir Bar-Lev. A Weinstein Company release. Rated R. 94 minutes. (Opens 9/24)