Amir Bar- Lev’s previous documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, questioned the authorship of a little girl’s unusually sophisticated and lucrative canvases, and the role her father may have played in their creation. It was a detective story as well as a highly personal nonfiction essay, and it was a marvel.
Bar-Lev’s new film is The Tillman Story, and while self-effacing in its technique, it is no less superb. It is enraging yet nuanced, an elusive combination for any documentary, honoring a good man’s life while nailing the dishonorable way Tillman’s family was treated by the military and the Bush White House when questions regarding the 27-year-old’s death proved politically inconvenient.
In the days following the 2004 death of U.S. Army Spc. Pat Tillman near the Pakistan border in Afghanistan, a battle played out in the American media over a newly minted war hero’s symbolic meaning. Here was a pro football star who walked away from gridiron riches to sign up for a three-year hitch after 9/11, following in his military family’s footsteps. He was, from a U.S. propaganda perspective, gold.
The man behind the symbol resisted such reductive packaging. As an infantryman, Tillman found himself fighting his own disillusionment with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, which made no strategic or moral sense to him. Tillman was not alone, of course. That is why The Tillman Story packs the punch it does. The gentleman jock from the San Jose, Calif., suburb of Almaden, an avid reader of Emerson and Homer, saw the so-called war on terror in more complicated terms than his own president.
Before the facts of his death became known, Tillman was sold to the public as a classic wartime martyr, a man who died with a battle cry in his throat (“Let’s take the fight to the enemy!”). Then- Brig. Gen. Stanley McChrystal recommended him for the Silver Star. By the time of Tillman’s memorial, however, McChrystal had written a back-channel memo advising the president not to discuss the allegedly rousing, recruitment-friendly circumstances of Tillman’s death.
McChrystal had gotten wind of the fratricide (Tillman was fired upon by three of his fellow Rangers in close quarters) and then went to considerable lengths to keep the friendly-fire investigation a secret from the family.
How the family responded to all this — how they chopped their way through the obfuscation and deception — fuels The Tillman Story. The heroics here are human-scaled but inspiring. From one perspective, the focus of the film takes us straight back to Greek tragedy. In any war there is a mother’s son, grieving yet determined to go on. As Tillman’s survivors, particularly his mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, take on Army and White House officials in a quest for verifiable, unvarnished information, the film retains a sharp point of view, but it is no propaganda piece. The original, factually challenged Tillman story — the administration’s — constituted propaganda at its most unseemly and, yes, un-American.
Pat Tillman, by contrast, was a richly contradictory American worth a dozen films, a hundred tributes.
Bar-Lev’s film will suffice for now. It reminds us to question what we hear during wartime, always.