By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2010; C01
Of all the stories Americans love to tell ourselves, none is more seductive than the tragedy with a happy ending.
And, as is made unsettlingly clear in Amir Bar-Lev's "The Tillman Story," we'll get that sense of closure and uplift, the facts be damned. In this masterful, unsettling documentary, Bar-Lev revisits the life and death of Pat Tillman, who in 2002 gave up a lucrative contract with the NFL to enlist in the Army. In 2004, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in an episode that was initially described as a Taliban ambush but turned out to be friendly fire.
Through Tillman's family members, Army colleagues and analysts, the director lays out how, in the weeks following the event, the U.S. military and government -- aided by a supine media -- sought to propagandize Tillman's death, turning a murky and unsavory incident into a parable of post-9/11 nationalist fervor.
"The Tillman Story" proves the eternal verity that the truth is far more interesting than the myth ever hoped to be. Pat Tillman emerges as something of a golden child, the eldest of three brothers growing up in an idyllic Northern California cottage. Their parents, Patrick and Mary (known as Dannie), encouraged the boys to play outside, push their own physical boundaries and think for themselves, values Pat took to heart as a small but incredibly strong football player and intellectual iconoclast (he was known to read anything from Noam Chomsky to the Book of Mormon).
When the facts of Pat's death came into question, Dannie took it upon herself to search for the truth, and much of "The Tillman Story" is structured, thrillerlike, around her journey. That labyrinthine expedition starts with a 3,000-page data dump of reports, transcripts, maps and her son's autopsy that the government provides, most of it redacted. With the help of Army veteran and blogger Stan Goff, Dannie meticulously went through each page, putting together the circumstances around her son's death, which included someone burning his uniform and body armor soon thereafter. As the pieces fell into place, Dannie concluded that Pat died, not in "the fog of war" as the official story had it, but out of "lust to fight" on the part of trigger-happy young soldiers so eager to earn their bones in battle that they continued firing on her son despite his signaling to them that he was friendly. The facts of Tillman's death will probably always remain a mystery despite Pentagon and congressional investigations.
Some familiar names and faces show up in "The Tillman Story," as a plot twist develops that involves a memo written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal suggesting that top Pentagon officials -- including Donald Rumsfeld -- knew the true circumstances of Tillman's death weeks before they acknowledged them. There's no doubt that the propaganda campaign was cynical; at one point a military official criticizes Dannie's efforts as those of an obsessed atheist.
But as valuable as "The Tillman Story" is as a lucid, incisive piece of investigative journalism, what makes it great is that it doesn't stop there. In addition to persuasively arguing that the Bush administration showed breathtaking insensitivity in seeking to co-opt Pat Tillman's death and his family's grief, Bar-Lev raises far more profound questions about Americans themselves.
In a surreal coincidence, Tillman's first Army tour was in Iraq, where he helped provide perimeter support for the stage-managed rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Lynch later debunked the Pentagon's account of her own actions before being captured by Iraqi forces, accusing the military of using her in their propaganda efforts.
Even while Tillman himself was nurturing deep doubts about the wisdom and even legality of that conflict, he was unwittingly part of a larger effort to sell it. Questions of why we were there in the first place were quickly submerged under breathless news spots of "Saving Private Lynch," even though the movie her rescue most resembled was the dark political satire "Wag the Dog."
But these narratives found a receptive audience in a public that has always been eager to learn versions of history -- ancient or recent -- that reflect its most comforting, self-flattering aspirations. The most painful sequence in "The Tillman Story" has nothing to do with Washington's attempts at "perception management" but depicts a ceremony when one of Tillman's football uniform numbers was retired, as a band plays, cheerleaders gyrate and a clueless crowd cheers before his still-benumbed wife and family.
It's absurd but somehow fitting that "The Tillman Story" arrives in Washington the same day as the pulp-action movie "Centurion," about a Roman soldier in 2nd-century Britain at battle with ruthless tribes of Picts. Although in style and substance the two films couldn't be more different, Michael Fassbender's protagonist in "Centurion" pops fully formed from the mold of the classic good soldier -- the man of honor, integrity and supreme physical bravery who transcends imperialist politics and tribal savagery to embody humanity's most exalted ideals amid the carnage and chaos of war.
Like Fassbender's character, Tillman was a gladiator-turned-warrior. He was a gridiron hero with blond, flowing hair worthy of epic poetry; a jock with a Renaissance man's love of learning and philosophy; a superb, tough physical specimen who took his unit's smallest and shyest member under his wing. At 25, he was older and probably wiser than his Army Ranger cohorts, and "The Tillman Story" very quietly suggests that some of his fellow soldiers may have resented his experience, ambition and charisma.
But, the film also suggests, Tillman was no paragon. In clips from his days at Arizona State and with the Arizona Cardinals, he occasionally comes off as cocky. He could be reckless. And he was a frequent and indiscriminate deployer of the f-bomb, an epithet apparently equally cherished by the rest of his family. (As one neighbor recalls, they could use it as a noun, verb, adjective and every other part of speech.)
It's just this unruly, profane, un-peggable Pat Tillman that "The Tillman Story" conveys so subtly yet so powerfully. We'll never know precisely why he enlisted in the Army in 2002, despite the Washington spin-shop's best efforts to connect his decision to 9/11. This, finally, is what "The Tillman Story" does so well -- deconstructing the myth, the better to embrace the mystery. Chipping away at the hero to reveal the imperfect man.
Imperfect but, as "The Tillman Story" makes so potently clear, a young man of exceptional talent, presence and potential. Bar-Lev doesn't re-mythologize his subject as much as restore his identity as the man his family and friends still miss. By letting filmgoers get to know that man, "The Tillman Story" reminds us that the stories we long to hear, especially during wartime, also function as a way to distance ourselves from the reality of death -- the violence, the suffering and, in this case particularly, the senselessness.
Bar-Lev's greatest achievement, finally, isn't political but emotional. By introducing filmgoers to the Pat Tillman who was kept from us for so long, "The Tillman Story" invites us simply to feel his loss. This tragedy never had a happy ending, but thanks to Bar-Lev's remarkable film, it's been infused with deep and palpable meaning.
The Tillman Story
(94 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema)
is rated R for profanity.