The Tillman Story is the kind of documentary that just burst forth from the screen and stays etched in your mind. Most people will have heard of Pat Tillman, the guy who turned down a multi-million dollar payday playing professional football (Arizona Cardinals #40, previously playing for the Arizona State Sun Devils #42) to volunteer for combat service. At first his death in combat was played by the press as the demise of a hero during an enemy ambush but subsequently the myth revealed its true colors by acknowledging that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.
The Tillman Story unfolds like a mystery as director Amir Bar-Lev with help from Tillman’s parents, puts pieces together to show how the event was first received. Then we see how the truth was cobbled together by the only people who really cared, mainly Tillman’s family. It should be noted that one of the most damning bits of evidence were literally a couple of thousand pages of documents obtained by parents Patrick (himself ex-military and a lawyer) and Mary Tillman that had been redacted. The film details how they literally went through every page (most of the text has big black lines drawn through it) and figured out such things as names by counting the number of spaces that had been blacked-out and referencing that to the amount of letters in each name of the men who served alongside Tillman in Afghanistan. The Tillman Story is not about naming names of the soldiers who shot Pat Tillman, although there is a book about the incident (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer) that does.
Bar-Lev had previously directed a documentary called My Kid Could Paint That but the seriousness with which The Tillman Story unwinds shows and extends his grasp on matters topical. We learn about Tillman in ways that reveal his true nature. He wore his hair long, didn’t normally use a cell phone and rode a bike to work, parking it alongside the Escalade SUVs that his fellow football players drove.
One of the troops who was next to Tillman when he was killed gives his account of the incident and in fact credits his staying alive to Tillman commanding him to “quit praying and focus.” The soldier recounts how he had freaked out and basically fallen on his knees in prayer and that Tillman’s order gave him the pinpoint concentration to assess the situation and take proper cover. When you realize how close the troops firing on these men were, you get a lump in your throat as it dawns on you how unnecessary Tillman’s death, and by relation the whole Afghan invasion, truly was.
Accidents in wartime are common but the complicity of the government from the highest levels (POTUS on down to the top generals) in trying to cover-up the details from Tillman’s parents and from the American public in general are what fuel the rage behind this movie. Footage taken at Pat’s funeral, including an emotional diatribe by his younger brother likewise tear the viewer apart. The Tillman Story opens this weekend at the Edwards Grand Palace.
– Michael Bergeron