There is no one in America who hasn’t at least heard of Pat Tillman – he was the football player who gave up his NFL career to enlist in the Army, and was subsequently killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Tillman’s unit was attacked in a roadside ambush – he and an allied Afghan militia member were shot dead, and two other American Army Rangers were injured. Tillman became an instant hero: a selfless man who gave up everything to fight for his country and what he believed in. His funeral was attended by high-ranking military officers and members of congress. His death would inspire others to join the fight, and defeat the evil forces who attacked us on 9/11 and killed Tillman.
The only problem: the purported circumstances surrounding his death proved false. This story was a lie, fabricated to cover up a much darker truth.
In the days following his death, an investigation revealed that Tillman was killed by friendly-fire. His unit was split in two. One half heard what sounded like gunfire, turned a corner, and saw the Afghani who accompanied Tillman’s half of the unit. They assumed he was Taliban, and opened fire. Despite Tillman’s apparent attempts to identify himself and stop the combat, he too was shot and killed. His family wasn’t notified of this development until weeks after his funeral.
The Tillman Story, a documentary by director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) explores the attempt to cover up the true story of the final minutes of Pat Tillman’s life. Through the use of archival footage and interviews with Tillman’s family and selected fellow soldiers, Bar-Lev paints a scathing portrait a government desperate to drum up support for an increasingly unpopular war. By making Tillman a hero, they could rally the public around him and, consequently, around the country’s military efforts in general. While Tillman is undoubtedly a hero and an inspiring figure, his family argues, he is not heroic for the reasons reported to the American public.
Bar-Lev’s film manages to stay interesting throughout. What makes his film exciting, though, is also what often makes it unreliable and, arguably, hypocritical.
Due to the military’s innately secretive nature, certain peices of information are kept from the public. In investigating his death, Tillman’s family is left with no choice but to fill in the blanks with conjecture. Of course the conclusions reached will always be the most audacious, it’s human nature. The size and scope of the alleged Tillman cover-up can never be known for sure. I will admit, the film’s account is probably closer to the truth than the military’s, but it is still speculative nonetheless. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, but if one wants to create a film with the intention of damning the government, some kind of proof is crucial.
What the Tillmans and Bar-Lev ultimately do, is commit the same sin they condemn: attaching an unwilling face to an idea. Featured prominently is a family tree of sorts, depicting the United States’ military hierarchy. The camera pans up the branches, through the ranks and freezes at the top: The Commander in Chief, George W. Bush. Just as the government used Tillman as the face of patriotism and heroism, The Tillman Story uses Bush as the face of deception and evil. It is implied that blame rests on him alone.
It was easy for the government to exploit Tillman – his story is inherently inspiring – but it’s just as easy for a filmmaker, or a mourning family, to exploit an unpopular, incompetent president. And just as irresponsible.