Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who enlisted in the Army Rangers eight months after September 11, read Emerson, Chomsky, and, though an atheist, the Bible. Resembling a beefier Seann William Scott, he shunned cell phones, cars, and professional-athlete megalomania. A fiercely private (and principled) person, his death in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, during his second tour of duty, was spun by the Bush II administration into a recruiting tool. In the appalling exploitation of his corpse, Tillman was said to have died while protecting his comrades from a Taliban ambush; the bullets that felled him, however, came from his own platoon.
Amir Bar-Lev’s assiduous, furious documentary (a significant improvement over his last nonfiction film, 2007’s middling My Kid Could Paint That) on the Army’s craven cover-up and the Tillman family’s determination to find out the truth is a withering assessment of U.S. military culture. Unlike Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger’s Afghan-war doc Restrepo, Bar-Lev’s film feigns no pretense of “neutrality.” War is hell, the former documentary relentlessly (if unhelpfully) reminds us. But The Tillman Story goes deeper, exposing a system of arrogance and duplicity that no WikiLeak could ever fully capture.
While all members of Tillman’s immediate family and his widow, Marie, are powerful, riveting talking heads, his mother, Mary, emerges as the tireless moral compass. (Pat’s middle brother, Kevin, who enlisted at the same time as his older sibling, apparently refused to be interviewed; perhaps he had nothing to add to his forceful, damning remarks at the 2007 Congressional hearing addressing the willful misinformation about Pat’s death, included here.) A few weeks after Tillman’s memorial service, which occasioned grandstanding from John McCain (R) and Maria Shriver (D), the military admitted that Pat was killed by friendly fire, attributing the incident to confusion during combat, or “the fog of war.” Poring through 3,000 pages of heavily redacted documents about her son’s death, Mary, with the help of retired special-ops soldier Stan Goff (“I got a blog”), draws this conclusion: “It was not a fog of war. It was a lust to fight.”
Bar-Lev’s examination of that lust stands out as the film’s most scathing indictment, puncturing the military’s convenient, frequently deluded myths about altruism and the noble call to serve one’s country. “I wanted to serve myself,” scoffs Russell Baer, a close friend to both Pat and Kevin Tillman in the Rangers who was ordered not to reveal anything about the real cause of Pat’s death (though he had nothing to do with his pal’s demise). “I wanted to shoot guns and blow things up.” He wasn’t the only one: Some soldiers responsible for Tillman’s killing remarked in a report that they were “excited” and “wanted to stay in the firefight” when asked why they continued shooting at Tillman, who was only 40 meters away. As Goff notes, the U.S. Armed Forces imposes “a level of wisdom and maturity on soldiers that doesn’t apply to 19-year-olds anywhere, ever.”
The bitter irony of Tillman’s death, of course, was that he was a modest, self-sacrificing soldier. Despite his celebrity, he refused all requests for press conferences or public explanations for his decision to enlist (which the U.S. government violated post-mortem, just as it tried to overrule his wishes for a civilian, not military, funeral). Though he continually questioned the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in conversations with friends and family—becoming particularly disgusted with the occupation of the former—Tillman insisted on honoring his three-year commitment to the Army, declining offers from his agent to secure an early discharge and return to the NFL. For his sacrifice, leadership, and character, his body was hatefully used as propaganda, his family lied to and gravely let down by Congress, which ultimately let Donald Rumsfeld and several four-star generals off the hook.