Debunking the myth-making of the U.S. military
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 3, 2010
In an otherwise slack season at the movies, "The Tillman Story" emerges as the summer's first true must-see film, required viewing for everyone, but especially audiences in Washington. Because even though Pat Tillman's personal story began in California, took him to Arizona and tragically ended in Afghanistan in 2004, the Tillman story writ large has everything to do with this city, its obsession with power and perceptions.
When Tillman enlisted in the Army in 2002, he gave up a lucrative contract with the NFL, an act that was celebrated at the time for its selflessness and courage. Two years later, as an Army Ranger, he was killed in Afghanistan in an episode initially described as a Taliban ambush; the former Arizona Cardinals player was awarded a posthumous Silver Star, and his funeral drew thousands, including Sen. John McCain and California first lady Maria Shriver.
Weeks later, the Army revealed that Tillman's death was "probably" the result of fratricide. But by that time, the military and Bush administration's narrative of Tillman's life and death had taken on a life of its own, its mythology increasingly at odds with the truth known by his closest family and friends. In "The Tillman Story," filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev spins a fascinating, shattering and finally appalling story of his own as he deconstructs the official story -- a "comfortable fable," as one observer calls the government's version of events -- and leads viewers on an absorbing search for the truth of Tillman's death and its subsequent coverup.
Our proxy on that journey is Tillman's mother, Dannie, who after she learns that her eldest son died from friendly fire asks the Army to provide her with more facts about the case. In a classic bureaucratic move, they dump more than 3,000 pages of reports, maps, Tillman's autopsy and transcripts on her doorstep -- much of it redacted -- which she proceeds to analyze with the help of a blogger and retired special-ops soldier, Stan Goff. Dannie becomes convinced that Tillman's death wasn't the result of "the fog of war," as the Army would have it, but, as she puts it, "a lust to fight."
Over three years of indefatigable research -- including an intemperate letter from Tillman's father that inadvertently sparks a Pentagon investigation -- the Tillman family becomes convinced that Pat's death was cynically manipulated by the administration to propagandize for the war. As brilliantly as "The Tillman Story" makes the case that they're right -- ending, as so many of these films do, with a perfunctory and utterly useless hearing before a congressional oversight committee -- its real value lies in what it doesn't do. In deconstructing the myth that the government created around Tillman's life and death, Bar-Lev doesn't simply spin a counter-myth. Instead he actually manages to convey the unusually charismatic, inquisitive, complex human being whose motives, like his death, will always remain a mystery. Pat Tillman emerges from "The Tillman Story" as a real presence, making his absence all the more palpable.