The entire adventure was conceived from a really existing condition of weakness. I have said that for some time. Even progressive forces were intimidated by the raw power and outlandish price tag of the U.S. military machine and the demonstrated willingness to use it. There was the sense that it was a juggernaut. That’s how bullies operate—through intimidation.
—Stan Goff, Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (New York: Soft Skull Press 2004)
I have repeatedly said, when asked, that if the stories about me helped inspire our troops and rally a nation, then perhaps there was some good. However, I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary.
—Jessica Lynch (27 April 2007)
It’s not exactly news that the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were inspired by fears and deceptions. Still, a certain faith in U.S. superiority, moral as much as military, abides, against considerable odds. The Tillman Story is upfront about wanting to challenge that faith, to question political assumptions and seeming historical frameworks. To that end, it offers the story of Pat Tillman and his family, hardly resolved but surely galvanizing.
The film opens and closes on Pat Tillman’s face. It’s a famous one, displayed repeatedly and in multiple ways since his decision in 2002 to leave behind his contract with the Arizona Cardinals and enlist in the Army Rangers. The footage here is taken from an interview conducted for the football team’s publicity department, in which he’s asked to introduce himself. “Pat,” asks an off-screen voice, “Can you try that one more time?” He’s endearingly awkward, the clip helping to set up the film’s premise, that though he was often asked to perform before cameras and elsewhere, he remained a private person with little interest in self-promotion. “If they knew anything about my son,” observes Mary Tillman, “They wouldn’t have done what they did.”
The “they” here is a potentially large set of individuals and interests, but sure to include the military, the Bush administration, the media (as broad or monolithic as you might construe them), the state of Arizona, and the Cardinals and the NFL too. To “set the story straight,” Mary (also called Dannie), along with her ex-husband Patrick Tillman Sr., Pat’s wife Marie, his brother Richard, and several military colleagues, remember him here on their own terms. He didn’t think of himself as a hero, he was courageous and thoughtful and righteously critical of the war effort he had joined, he didn’t want a military funeral.
Of course, Pat Tillman was also killed in Afghanistan, on 22 April 2004. And he was the subject of a campaign by the administration to promote the war, a campaign dreadfully undermined once it was revealed that he had not been killed by Taliban fighters but by Americans, and that Americans covered up that fact for invidious reasons. “I think they thought if they spun the story and we found out,” says Dannie, “We’d just go along.”
Amir Bar-Lev’s film traces the Tillmans’ considerable efforts not to go along, to expose the lies surrounding not just Pat’s death, but also the war(s) more broadly, as well as the culture that produces them. The film underlines the broad-based problem with reference to the false stories about Jessica Lynch, who testifies at the same 27 April 2007 House Committee Hearing as Dannie, Patrick Sr., and their son Kevin, who was in Afghanistan with Pat (and who chose not to be interviewed for The Tillman Story). This hearing appears late in the film, providing a kind of climax for the careful amassing of documentation and indignation. A montage of officials like Donald Rumsfeld and John Abizad shows them insisting they “don’t recall” receiving a crucial memo that informed them of the circumstances of Pat’s death.
“It was embarrassing to watch,” says Pat’s dad now. It’s also infuriating, as the footage indicts as well Chairman Henry Waxman, who essentially thanks everyone for coming: “You were all very busy, no question about it” he allows. “A lot of politics is theatrical,” observes Stan Goff, who appears here as 26-year army veteran (a former Master Sergeant, with the Special Forces and Delta Force) as well as anti-Iraq war activist and outspoken advisor to the Tillmans. Here he notes that throughout the process of selling Pat Tillman’s death, a pattern has evolved: Once “people start asking questions, the Tillman story changes.”
In following these changes, The Tillman Story exposes disparities between images and truths. Just after Pat’s death, a military detail arrives at Marie’s home, not to console he or give her information, as TV reports suggested, but to persuade her to permit the military funeral he expressly documented he didn’t want. Dannie asserts that though no U.S. soldiers have been investigated for the shooting, she believes they were acting not within a “fog of war,” but rather “a lust to fight: they just wanted to shoot.” And, at a memorial in San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden, along with John McCain and Stanley McChrystal (who notoriously approved Pat’s posthumous Silver Star for his death in combat, despite knowledge of the friendly fire), Richard expresses his outrage: “Pat isn’t with God. He’s fucking dead. He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”
Similar anger drives the film, which indicts other media for disseminating the lies originated elsewhere. As if to reclaim some of the emblems used to lionize Pat and the wars (he fought in both: Marie recalls, that he characterized the Iraq war as “bullshit” on coming home, then worried openly about tactics in Afghanistan once he and Kevin arrived there), the film makes its own use of fluttering flags. But it also insists, via discomforting zooms into grainy TV images (Dannie and Marie looking especially miserable at a memorial at University of Phoenix Stadium), that images can be misleading, and are exploited by specific actors at specific times to that purpose.
In its outrage, The Tillman Story advocates openly for the Tillmans—a point underscored by recent promotional interviews. The documentary’s investigation of how these specific stories are conceived and circulated alludes as well to the persistence of the practice. Dannie makes clear that her interest is not only to reclaim her son’s story, but also to make public a pattern of dishonesty, a habit of institutional hypocrisy. “This,” she says, “is about what they did to a nation.” It’s also about how that nation—individuals as well as institutions—must be responsible for the stories about it.