Sundance 2010: Michael Moore loves the Pat Tillman documentary, but will middle America?


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Amir Bar-Lev, who was behind the Sundance hit ‘My Kid Could Paint That’ a few years back, returns to the festival this year with a documentary about Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 after leaving behind his NFL career to enlist.

Bar-Lev directs ‘The Tillman Story’ (formerly ‘I’m Pat ____Tillman,’ after what may have been the soldier’s last words) with aplomb. Audiences essentially get two movies for the price of one: a portrait of a complex personality (a man who gave up everything to join the Army but also read the antiwar writings from Noam Chomsky) as well as the depth and scope of a U.S. military cover-up of his death by friendly fire. Bar-Lev’s film, which premiered Saturday afternoon in Park City, Utah, is a strong depiction of something that has been well-documented but never culled in this way. What’s notable is that, according to what the movie and the Tillman family allege, it wasn’t simply the Army’s incompetence that led them to say his death came from enemy fire, but an active and cynical desire to shape him into something he wasn’t -- and in turn help sell a skeptical nation on a war.


It’s little wonder, given the themes, that Michael Moore attended the Saturday premiere, telling us afterward that the Tillman film is ‘one of the most important movies you’ll ever see about the U.S. military.’

But for all the movie’s creative virtues, (it’s also a pretty compelling meditation on hero worship), there’s a marketing snag to whatever distributor winds up buying it out of Park City. Tillman’s fan base is comprised at least partly of the patriots and pro-militarists, the hawks and the Fox News watchers, who found inspiration in the story of a football player who decides to fight for the U.S. entirely of his own accord. Indeed, part of the appeal of the movie -- as A&E Indie FIlms, which made it, and CAA and Submarine Entertainment, which is selling it, have reminded -- is that the Tillman name recognition will help it play to a right-wing audience.

But there’s a flaw here. While the film does put the spotlight on a neocon and Bible-belt hero, it mainly serves to tear down assumptions about him. In fact, its entire raison d’etre is to show him to be less a patriotic poster child than a quiet man with complex motivations who the military appropriated for its own reasons. All of which adds up to a paradox: The very people who would have an established interest in seeing the movie are those whose perceptions the movie seeks to undermine. There’s a striking Fox News clip about midway through in which Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter say that they’d heard a rumor that Tillman read Chomsky and wanted to vote for John Kerry but they both ‘can’t believe that.’ This movie pretty much makes you believe that, or at least makes you believe he’s not the right-wing hero Coulter and Hannity would have you think he is.

In the film, Tillman’s mother, Dannie, is especially impressive -- thoughtful, controlled and articulate -- and will no doubt be an asset when it comes to getting the word out. The family generally cuts a magnetic and candid figure. Asked about Jon Krakauer’s book about Tillman, the soldier’s youngest brother told the screening audience of the author that ‘that guy’s a piece of ...’ Dannie then chimed in, with a shrug of her shoulders, ‘I can’t muzzle him.’ The movie honestly vocalizes plenty of truths. But it could be a trick to get people to listen.

-- Steven Zeitchik