The Tillman Story
There are few things more American than assumed ignorance. We’re the good guys; everyone else just doesn’t know any better and needs our help to get properly informed. If they’re not interested in our particular wares, we get suspicious or aggressive, whether it’s about Democracy, weapons, religion, or French Freedom French Fries.
Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, about the death and cover-up of former NFL and military star Pat Tillman is predicated on this premise; the American government assumed that there’s no way anyone would bother reading heavily technical paperwork filled with redactions and conflicting testimony. Of course, if it were a message from your credit card company, insurance company, or cable company, skipping the footnotes and tiny type, the parts where it tells you that your rates are going up so the CEO can re-finance his collection of rare Italian cars, is an almost perfectly reasonable reaction. Who has a magnifying glass on hand at all times just to read their mail?
Unfortunately for the government, after her loved one’s death, Pat’s mother Mary Tillman didn’t act like Jennifer Connolly in House of Sand and Fog and hope the pain would subside if she simply never opened up any of her mail or attempts at communication. And after 5 weeks of misinformation and politicians capitalizing on Tillman’s death as a way to show how the war on terror was being fought by heroes, instead of revealing that Tillman was killed by reckless friendly fire, finally, the partial truth was revealed.
The build-up to the reveal was more than surreal, hundreds of politicians and military types showed up to Pat’s funeral and spoke of his commitment to God and country. And then Pat’s younger brother Rich, inebriated and full of vigor, stepped up to the podium full of vigor and chastised the crowd of vultures, pointing out that Pat was an Atheist and would have loathed the pageantry and jingoism going on. Whether or not Bar-Lev cheated when he cut to the reaction of the crowd, unmoved by Kevin’s passion, especially an impatient, fidgety, and bored-looking John McCain, is not clear. Was the context removed and their reaction was perhaps to something less volatile? But it gets to one of the few problems with The Tillman Story.
Repeatedly, those on screen, especially Pat’s family, try to point out that Pat didn’t want to be thought of as a hero, and he didn’t want to be lionized (and bronzed as he later was in statue-form, looking just like Medusa), but with the heavy narration by Josh Brolin, the focus on the Circus Maximus situation, and the easy sentiment and facile shots at the government bureaucracy, it cheapens the effect of the film (“the death didn‘t just belong to the family“). Sure, it’s funny when a TV pundit talks about “glorious tales,” and the film immediately cuts to a politician’s silly-looking toupee, but it undermines the more unique aspects of Tillman’s case.
It’s stated more than once that the soldiers involved in the firefight that got Tillman killed simply couldn’t wait to engage with whomever might fire back, enemy or not. These were young kids, out of their depth, but despite the thousands of pages that Mrs. Tillman goes through, there aren’t many details revealed to us except brief snippets of their interviews. It isn’t just that the soldiers were barely out of high school and fighting a war they didn’t understand (and Pat called “illegal”), but how they would take responsibility for their actions and how it would change them as people (like De Palma did with Casualties of War). Bar-Lev chose the safer, broader way, and so he ended up making a good film on a great subject.