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‘The Tillman Story’: Tragedy Turned Into a Recruiting Poster

The Tillman Story investigates the death of NFL star turned soldier Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, and exposes the insidious machinery that turns accidents of war into myths justifying America’s military interventions abroad.

The initial story the Army told about Tillman’s death in April 2004—to his family, to the media—was a tale of heroism and grace under fire. Ambushed in a canyon and cut off from the rest of their convoy, Tillman’s company fought bravely against Taliban forces, until Tillman succumbed to enemy fire while attempting to cover his comrades’ escape. A Navy Seal and family friend movingly reiterated this narrative at Tillman’s funeral days later, and reporters and commentators echoed it in the weeks after the incident.

Tillman had already been lionized for turning down a multi-million-dollar NFL contract when he decided to enlist after 9/11; the story of his brave death all but deified the young man. Held up as the exemplar of all that was good in America, Tillman represented all the values US forces were fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan: patriotism, bravery, humility, self-sacrifice.

But the story was a lie. Five weeks after his death, the Army admitted that Pat was killed by friendly fire during a heated battle with the enemy. Over the course of a dogged search for more details, Tillman’s family learned that this second account, while it acknowledged that the incident was “fratricide”, nevertheless still misrepresented events: there was no ambush, just overeager soldiers who mistook their comrades for the enemy. The Tillman Story follows the efforts of the Tillmans to discover the details of Pat’s death and the extent of the misinformation campaign.

Director Amir Bar-Lev structures his documentary to mirror the Tillman family’s move from stunned confusion to a dawning realization that the military has misled them and the nation, to the alarming discovery that the pattern of lying likely extends to the Oval Office. The Army finally acquiesces to the Tillmans’ request for information, giving them six thick binders of heavily redacted “source documents” numbering more than 3,000 pages, assuming the information will overwhelm and dispirit them. A shot of the binders burgeoning out of a document box also reminds us of the daunting task facing the documentary filmmaker who must make sense of disparate sources.

Just as the documentary moves from the welter of conflicting accounts and sometimes opaque comments by Tillman’s family and fellow soldiers that characterize the opening minutes of The Tillman Story, to a coherent accounting of the family’s struggle with the government, so Pat’s family systematically work through the documents, decoding the blacked out parts by counting letters and narrowing down possible wording through deductive reasoning.

The Tillman Story carries out a sustained critique of the mainstream media. Television reporters and commentators in particular come off poorly in the film. Excerpts from newscasters praising Tillman without reserve portray a complacent industry eager to take the military at its word. Bar-Lev also includes a sequence in which Fox News personalities Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and Alan Colmes grapple with cognitive dissonance when Tillman’s critique of the war and correspondence with leftist Noam Chomsky render inadequate their simplistic binary worldview where right=good, left=bad. Footage of a reporter calling celebrated soldier Jessica Lynch “Jessica Lange”, and a clip of Dan Rather referring to the fictional account of her rescue as “Saving Private Lynch” drive home the point that the media relies on narrative tropes much like Hollywood does in order to package stories in digestible form.

Bar-Lev offers the rescue of Lynch as another instance of the military fabricating a story to drum up support for the military and the war on terror. According to initial accounts, Lynch fought bravely before being captured by Iraqi insurgents, who tortured her until the Army carried out a daring rescue. In fact, Lynch was injured when her vehicle crashed, never fired her weapon, and was treated well by the Iraqis. The rescue was staged for the cameras. The official Lynch and Tillman stories provide complementary gendered narratives of idealized male and female heroism. Both take up arms and go down fighting; he finds a hero’s active death on the battlefield, while she is taken prisoner and tortured, the passive suffering female.

Competing narration complicates The Tillman Story and offers an alternative to the traditional documentary format. Voiceover exposition by Josh Brolin dominates the first half of the film, but the actor’s voice figures less frequently as the film progresses, while commentary from Stan Goff — Army veteran, author, and blogger — predominate. While it’s true that Goff worked closely with the Tillmans (the film doesn’t specify whether they paid him for his efforts), he nevertheless serves as a disinterested chorus to the action. As a veteran, he has insider cred, while his blogger status shows his independence from the mainstream media and its close ties to the military.

“We’ll turn his dead body into a recruiting poster”, Goff says, paraphrasing the Army’s intention in fabricating a story of heroism to cover the fact that they killed their most famous recruit. Goff echoes complaints from Tillman’s family that Pat, in all his complexity, was lost in all the tellings and retellings of his story, but—like Pat’s mother, father, and brothers—insists that debunking the myth has a salutary effect: “It’s an opportunity for reality to break through. People start asking questions, and then all of a sudden the Tillman story changes”.

Aside from a director’s commentary track, there are no extras on the DVD.

RATING 6 / 10