Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story is one of the most infuriating documentaries ever made. And I mean that as the highest compliment. I walked out of this document of an absolutely shameful chapter of our nation's history and the evil men who made it possible and it felt like my skin was on fire. I wanted to scream I was so furious. Furious at the weak men who thought they could exploit the life of one of our strongest. Furious at the system that not only made it possible but virtually made it inevitable. Furious at the complete lack of journalistic checks and balances that would make the pioneers in this field spin in their grave. And furious that this film isn't required viewing on the part of every politician, writer, and, most importantly, part of the military machine that decides when we go to war and who goes there. When's the last time a movie made you feel anything much less angry enough that you want to take action? You will walk out of The Tillman Story shaken but it's an experience that can't be put into words. You simply must see one of the best documentaries in years.
The title of The Tillman Story refers to three things – the truth of what happened to Pat Tillman as well as the false narrative that was constructed around his death and the family that fought to honor their loved one in the way he would have wanted. In case you're completely oblivious to one of the most notorious chapters of the Iraq War, Pat Tillman was a very successful player for the Arizona Cardinals who decided to walk away from millions of dollars as a professional athlete to serve in Iraq. After he died there, we were told that he had been gunned down in an enemy ambush. The All-American kid was the perfect face to sell the War and make its detractors feel good about what we were doing over there. If the enemy could gun down Pat "F**king" Tillman in cold blood, who could possibly protest our wiping them out en masse as retaliation? Before his body was even cold, the story of Pat Tillman was being written and, according to the documentary, it went ALL the way up the food chain. Before the week was out, President Bush himself was telling the false narrative of Pat Tillman and there's every reason to believe he knew the truth.
The truth was that it was all a load of bulls**t. We soon learned that Pat Tillman hadn't been anywhere near the enemy when he was killed. As is explained in as much detail as possible given the differing accounts to this day and with on-the-scene footage, it seems like Tillman was in a valley with half his convoy when he was fired upon by the other half. As he screamed, "I'm Pat F**king Tillman!!!" they blew a hole in his head. And the United States Government not only did everything to hide this fact, they acted against the express wishes of Tillman and his family. For example, Tillman made clear in documents that he didn't want a military funeral. They began to schedule one almost immediately. But they messed with the wrong family. The lesson of The Tillman Story is that we should all hope that our family members stand up for us in the way that the Tillmans have for their son, brother, and husband. This is THEIR story. As the government tried to turn Pat Tillman into a martyr and an icon, those who really knew him fought against it and searched hard for the truth. How hard? They got all the way to a hearing on Capitol Hill where people like Donald Rumsfeld had to answer to what they knew and when they knew it. How they sat still as so many people lied under oath, I'll never understand. It's putting it mildly to suggest that I would have been found in contempt of court.
The Tillman Story is amazing for a number of reasons – the strength of storytelling, the remarkable editing, the brilliant interviews, the fascinating mystery of who knew what and when – but one thing that should be noted is that this is NOT a political piece. Pat Tillman didn't want to be turned into a symbol in support of the war and so Amir Bar-Lev makes the smart decision to similarly refuse to turn his true story into one against the war. It is not the story of "the war." It is the story of propaganda, power, and, most importantly, Pat "F**king" Tillman. It's a story that you simply have to hear.
Rating: FOUR BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: September 3rd, 2010