Notes on a scandal

Pub date August 31, 2010
SectionFilm Review

FILM To what extent is our government prepared to lie to us? Not just on a policy level, but a personal level, perverting actual instances of heroic self-sacrifice into propagandistic pablum? The answer during our prior White House administration was clearly: as far as possible, until caught.

Perhaps the most egregious such instance was the case of Pat Tillman, who gave up a lucrative NFL contract, becoming a U.S. Army Ranger enlistee in a burst of genuine patriotic fervor post-9/11. He was subsequently killed in Afghanistan — but the “friendly fire” circumstances of that death, and its apparent cover-up, scandalized not only his military superiors but a command chain of deliberate disinformation stretching all the way to the White House.

Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story is a documentary expose of unusual immediacy, narrative thrust, and outrage, which may partly stem from its being such a Bay Area story. The deceased subject’s South Bay family were diehard liberals dedicated to values that might be considered eccentric anywhere else, prizing honest intellectual adventure above such niceties as “clean” language. (Pat and his two younger brothers, as seen here, were/are cheerfully potty-mouthed.)

The mistake authorities made in casting Tillman’s death as a battlefield martyrdom — a scenario amply undermined by footage and testimony here — lay in underestimating the well-educated skepticism and doggedness of his blood relations, most notably mom, Mary. While other families rendered military ones by virtue of economic hardship and poor educational and career opportunities might have simply accepted an official scenario, the Tillmans found logistical gaps, then pushed, and pushed. It took two Congressional inquiries to prove their suspicions right.

Tillman was a golden boy of rare stripe: a natural athlete who overcame relatively small size (5-feet, 11 inches) to become a star tackle; a team player who turned down a $9 million St. Louis Rams contract out of loyalty to the Arizona Cardinals; a Noam Chomsky fan who abandoned pro sports to serve “freedom” abroad. He then refused to ditch his three-year Army term early (despite under-the-table negotiations between the government and the NFL) though he was already severely disillusioned by what he’d seen in Iraq.

When sent on a second tour of duty to Afghanistan, Tillman was only finishing what he considered a contract of honor. He was no longer at all sure about the righteousness of the cause. He was killed, it seems, senselessly — hardly an unusual casualty-of-war scenario. But his case was defiled by blatant official lies that manipulated this critical free-thinker into sacrificial poster boy for the “war on terror” in its most simplistic terms.

The Tillman Story is a journey toward justice (if not nearly enough). It’s engrossing, appalling, heartrending, and enraging, the nonfiction equivalent to last year’s underseen body bag drama The Messenger. It’s far from a worthy slog — Bar-Lev, who directed the brilliant prior doc My Kid Could Paint That (about a controversial, possibly rigged “child artist” success), retains a firm lock on narrative engagement in this less vérité context. It punches the emotions as hard as the originally intended title: I’m Pat Fucking Tillman, named after the subject’s recorded last words as he desperately tried to identify himself to testosterone over-amped “friendly” shooters who should have been watching his back.

THE TILLMAN STORY opens Fri/3 in Bay Area theaters.