The Tillman Story (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Gary Crowdus

As an NFL star, Pat Tillman (left) was the most celebrated post 9/11 enlistee

As an NFL star, Pat Tillman (left) was the most celebrated post 9/11 enlistee

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev; produced by John Battsek; narrated by Josh Brolin; cinematography by Sean Kirby and Igor Martinovic; edited by Joshua Altman, Joe Bini and Gabriel Rhodes; original music by Philip Sheppard. Color, 94 min. An A&E Indie Films production distributed by The Weinstein Company.

When referring to the combat deaths of American troops, the expedient lie employed by the military, the government, and the mainstream media is that the deceased made the “ultimate sacrifice,” willingly giving up their lives to defend our democratic freedoms and the American way of life. Even the parents or spouses of the dead often willingly voice such sentiments, if only as a psychological mechanism to assuage their grief over the otherwise meaningless loss of loved ones. But the truth is that, personal bravery notwithstanding, soldiers do not willingly sacrifice their lives—they are brutally taken from them.

In recent years, such patriotically-imbued white lies have been inflated to epic proportions in order to secure public support for the Bush Administration’s misbegotten “Global War on Terrorism,” in particular its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most notable example, which occurred during the first week of the Iraq War in 2003, involved nineteen-year-old PFC Jessica Lynch, taken captive after a supposedly heroic firefight against Iraqi troops, reportedly firing her weapon until she ran out of ammunition, and who was then subsequently rescued by a U.S. Army Special Forces team. The mission was delayed one day, however, so that it could include a combat camera crew, thus enabling the Pentagon to later release video of the carefully-staged and dramatized rescue, which was broadcast worldwide.

Despite Lynch’s subsequent denial of the Pentagon’s fabrications of her battlefield heroism and reports of interrogation and torture by her Iraqi captors, the media was more eager to promote, and the public clearly more interested in buying, the dramatic narrative created by the military. Within a matter of months, Lynch’s authorized biography, I Am a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, was published, and a heavily-fictionalized made-for-TV movie, Saving Jessica Lynch, was broadcast nationwide by NBC.

A similar PR campaign was attempted with the 2004 death in Afghanistan of U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman but, as Amir Bar-Lev’s important new documentary makes clear, in this case the military and the government picked the wrong soldier to exploit as a propaganda vehicle and the wrong family to try to bamboozle in such a cynical manner.

Patrick Daniel Tillman was America’s most celebrated post-9/11 enlistee, a professional football player who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract offer to join the U.S. Army Rangers in 2002, serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon immediately saw a poster boy in the making, as indicated by the personal letter sent by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld congratulating Tillman on his enlistment. Tillman preferred to keep a low profile, however, refusing all media requests for interviews.

When he was killed on April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s press release described his heroic actions during a Taliban ambush, shouting to his troops, “Let’s take the fight to the enemy!,” as he heroically charged up a hill into enemy gunfire, thereby sacrificing his own life to save those of the other members of his platoon. Tillman was awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat, a Purple Heart, and a posthumous promotion to Corporal. Five weeks later, however, the Army reluctantly acknowledged in an official statement that Tillman was “probably” killed by friendly fire.

This is the basic story, one with which most viewers of this film will likely be familiar from newspaper accounts, but which The Tillman Story rigorously investigates in depth, recounting the efforts of Tillman’s parents to uncover the truth of their son’s death and detailing the professionally irresponsible and morally reprehensible efforts of the military to whitewash and cover up the embarrassing incident. The film deftly interweaves several different documentary strands, shifting back and forth in time, successively revealing new elements of the story in a continually compelling manner, and ultimately bringing us as close to the truth of these events as we are ever likely to get.

Blending archival footage and interviews, the film features biographical background on Pat Tillman and his family; eyewitness accounts contrasted with an official Army video re-creation of his death; the investigative efforts of Tillman’s parents to try to understand exactly how their son was killed (transcripts of interviews with the shooters disturbingly reveal the overwrought state of inexperienced young soldiers eager for their first taste of combat and “excited” to join in a firefight, even though they weren’t sure who they were shooting at); the outrageous efforts of the military to conceal the truth (including burning any incriminating evidence, such as Tillman’s uniform, helmet, body armor and diary, in direct violation of military regulations); and the shameless willingness of the government and an all-too-complicit media to sell the public a heroic tale of patriotic self-sacrifice.

The Tillman Story makes it clear, for example, that although the Army knew immediately that Tillman’s death was due to fratricide, that he had been killed by members of his own platoon, they chose to advertise a cover story of battlefield derring-do, which we see extolled in excerpts from the Bush Administration-coordinated May 3rd public memorial service for Tillman in San Jose, California, which was attended by high-ranking Army officials and government dignitaries, and covered live by all the major TV networks. In a remarkable but little-known part of this service, the family’s discomfort with the flagrant mythologizing going on around them was colorfully characterized by the spontaneous comments of Pat’s younger brother, Richard. Following some platitudinous sentiments expressed by Maria Shriver, wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—“Pat, your family doesn’t have to worry anymore. You are home, you are safe, and you will not be forgotten”—Tillman’s younger brother Richard took the podium and offered an unscripted but heartfelt riposte to such well-meaning blather—“He’s not with God, he’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. So thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead”—at which point most of the networks pulled the plug on their live coverage of the event.

Through interviews, the documentary chronicles the family’s ongoing quest for the truth over four years, poring over thousands of pages of heavily redacted military documents, assisted in their effort to decipher them by retired Special Operations soldier Stan Goff. After having discovered that they had repeatedly been told lies by the military, Tillman’s father, a lawyer, sent off a blistering letter to the military investigators, accusing them of a blatant cover-up, and concluding with a decidedly uncomplimentary closing (“In sum: Fuck you… and yours”) by which he wished to make clear, as Tillman Sr. explains in more polite terms in the film, that he held them “in low regard.” Considered as an accusation of criminal conduct, the letter was forwarded to the Department of Defense, which resulted in yet another whitewash, this time in the guise of a press conference that attempted to pin sole blame on a then-retired three-star general.

Two days later, seemingly in outraged response to this continued deception, an Associated Press reporter received an anonymously leaked copy of a top-secret memo that had been sent within days of the deadly incident by General Stanley McChrystal (the recently cashiered U.S. Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan) to top Pentagon brass, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and senior White House officials. It acknowledged Tillman’s death by friendly fire and warned of the political danger if the truth were to become public knowledge.

Although this scandalous revelation led to congressional hearings, during which Rumsfeld and top generals were called to testify, the film reveals that members of the oversight committee were either unprepared or unwilling to conduct a serious investigation that would attempt to hold anyone accountable. Throughout three hours of testimony, during which the phrase “I don’t recall” was cited more than eighty-two times, various congressmen are shown to be only too eager either to commend the military for their service to the nation or to help those testifying get off the hook. When neither Rumsfeld nor any of the four-star generals, for example, can remember when they received the top-secret memo, committee chairman Henry Waxman fairly oozes with compassionate understanding—“Well, you were all very busy.” The clubby, mutually self-protective attitude of Washington insiders is shamefully and infuriatingly obvious. Dereliction of duty, whether congressional or military, was clearly the order of the day.

At a time when our government is telling us that the Iraq War is over (although 50,000 American troops will remain there indefinitely) and the ideologically and militarily bankrupt pursuit of the Afghanistan War is being escalated, The Tillman Story plays a vitally important role, telling truth to power, and enabling a more informed public response to the Pentagon’s ongoing PR efforts. Telling lies to promote a war is immoral, Mary Tillman explains in the film. “It’s not about what they did to Pat,” she says as a citizen as well as a mother, “but what they did to the nation.”

Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.