"Pat isn't with God, he's fuckin' dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead."
There's something profoundly angering and depressing about the sight of top U.S. Army generals lying their asses off before Congress with the Grim Reaper-like visage of Donald Rumsfeld egging them on. For anyone who caught the hearings on C-SPAN or watches Amir Bar-Lev's ferocious and infuriating documentary about the craven cover-up of Pat Tillman's death, you can't help but feel we're living out the American version of the Fall of Rome. That probably sounds a bit melodramatic, but one thing The Tillman Story makes absolutely clear: Our leaders have completely lost the ability to feel shame or take responsibility for their actions.
Bar-Lev's frustrating, funny and moving film is a valiant attempt to rescue the NFL-star-turned-soldier's identity and legacy from the clutches of self-serving politicos, media outlets and even the ignorant masses. All wanted a piece of him, and all projected their own agendas — political, religious or personal — onto his persona. It's a credit to Bar-Lev's film that Tillman, whose reasons for leaving the NFL and joining the war effort were kept personal, emerges as a real human being instead of just an iconic symbol.
Critical but not overtly political, The Tillman Story aims its sights at the recently sacrosanct U.S. military and blasts away, revealing a deep well of dishonesty and arrogance. A good portion of the film is dedicated to the underhanded machinations of those who viewed Tillman as a propaganda tool — something the young football star seemed to worry about. Using talking heads, archival footage, and factual inserts, the movie lays out the tragic details of his death and the ensuing efforts to hide and manipulate those facts.
There is little doubt conservative film reviewers like Armond White and Kyle Smith will view The Tillman Story as slanted anti-war agitprop. Their arguments are easier to forecast than the plot developments of the next Hostel movie. But whatever critical contortions and factual nitpicking they go through to mask their cynical agenda, there's no arguing the basic facts: Pat Tillman was killed by men in his own convoy. The U.S. Army endeavored to hide the facts from his family and public, then tried to cover up the cover-up. The Bush administration used the tragedy of his death as yet another opportunity to sell their war efforts. And the media, through incompetence, politics or gullibility, was complicit at enabling their deception. Even after the military's most obvious falsehoods were revealed, little was done to uncover those who orchestrated it and hold them responsible.
While Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) does a decent job of laying out the callow behaviors at the heart of this conspiracy, the strength of his doc is the context it provides. Tillman emerges as a far more complex and interesting figure than you might realize, challenging mainstream America's ideas about both sports and war icons. Thoughtful, earnest, brash, independent-thinking and an atheist, the impact and influence of his personality on those around him makes clear that Tillman would never fit the Bush administration's pro-military, right-wing fantasy of American heroism. Instead, the former NFL star struggled to reconcile his instinct for patriotism with a corrupted military mission.
Tillman's fearlessly unconventional family is similarly compelling; they don't neatly fit into any ideological box, reminding us that there are indeed ethical and upstanding pro-American Americans who can think and act for themselves. Bar-Lev does a masterful job at suggesting but never making assumptions about their personal dynamics, letting them emerge as intriguingly eccentric subjects yet respecting their privacy. Whether it's the sarcastic fury of Tillman's younger brother Richard, the haunted tamped-down outrage of his father, or the dogged decency of his mother, The Tillman Story never loses sight of its human core.
If there's a flaw it's that Bar-Lev's film comes dangerously close to deifying its subject. There's little doubt that Tillman was a talented, brave and humble young man, but he is not, and should not be seen as, a legend. Young soldiers die every day and each death is a terrible tragedy. What happened to Tillman is a cautionary tale rather than the making of a myth.
Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother, who also gave up professional sports to join the military, did not participate in Bar-Lev's documentary. He did, however, insist on completing the rest of his military tour. His appearance near the end of the film, in footage taken from congressional hearings, lays bare both his deep admiration for his mother and equally deep dissatisfaction with the country he chose to serve.
"The deception surrounding this case was an insult to the family, but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a whole nation. We say these things with disappointment and sadness for our country," he said.
That his heartfelt statement was followed by the mealy-mouthed dishonesty of career generals who were never held accountable for their four-star failures of character speaks volumes about our nation's leaders. Pat Tillman, and every other soldier who's ever served, deserves far better.
Opens Friday, Oct. 15, at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
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