Review: ‘The Tillman Story’ hits with force


“The Tillman Story” is a story that won’t go away, won’t leave you alone, won’t let you feel at ease. Intensely dramatic, filled with elevated heroism, crass self-interest and blatant stupidity, it’s a paradigmatic narrative of our tendentious, turbulent times.

It’s also a mark of how remarkable the tale of Pat Tillman is that no amount of retellings of its sequence of events — how an NFL star turned Army Ranger turned Afghan war casualty turned unwilling and untrue national symbol — can wear out the story’s power or dilute its essential mystery. Too awful and too significant to fade from view, the actions contain everything that’s right about this country as well as many of the things that are wrong.

So even though Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary follows in the footsteps of two excellent books, one by Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, and one from Jon Krakauer, as well as a lengthy Sports Illustrated profile by Gary Smith, it is well worth everyone’s time on its own.

Compelling, compassionate and terribly moving, “The Tillman Story” will make you angry as well as sad. Even if you know what happened in broad outline, the specifics are shocking, and being able to actually see the principals and watch as the layers get peeled away like an onion is frankly devastating.

The first surprise of “The Tillman Story” is the character of Patrick Daniel Tillman himself, a man who, as a friend says, is definitely not the “meat-head jock” people might be expecting when they first hear his name.

Candid and questioning by nature, a free-spirited iconoclast who effortlessly went his own way, Tillman was a complicated man who was as excited by the possibility of meeting Noam Chomsky as a 12-year-old boy would be at the chance to meet this charismatic defensive back for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.

Tillman was thrust into national prominence in 2002 when, at age 25 and in the wake of 9/11, he gave up his NFL career and, along with his brother Kevin, signed a three-year commitment with the U.S. military, instantly becoming “the most famous enlisted man in the Army.”

In telling the story of how Tillman got to this point and what happened to him in life in Afghanistan as well as in death afterward, director Bar-Lev has benefited from the cooperation of Tillman’s parents and Ranger colleagues, his widow Marie, and his younger brother Richard. (Kevin Tillman chose not to appear). Though, apparently at the family’s urging, the director does not go deeply into the reasons Pat joined up, the film’s portrait of his smart, passionate and persistent relatives is invaluable.

Whatever complex combination of reasons caused him to enlist, Tillman was far from delighted with the military. He was initially deployed to Iraq in 2003, which was problematic for him because he thought the war there was illegal. He could have secured an early discharge at the end of that year because of continued NFL interest in him, but he declined and was sent to Afghanistan. As Smith wrote in SI, few people realized “how wobbly a tightrope Pat walked between his integrity and his duty.”

Then on April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed in a narrow canyon near the Afghani village of Magarah. The story of why and how he died and what the Army did about it is so infuriating and so damning in the several ways it played out that it can make you weep with rage.

Though it was immediately clear that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, i.e. by his fellow Rangers, that information was carefully kept both from brother Kevin, who was nearby, and from the rest of Tillman’s family back in the U.S.

What happened instead is that the Army brass and the Bush administration determined, in the most Orwellian way, to destroy physical evidence and use Tillman’s death as a political propaganda tool to pump up domestic support of an unpopular war. So Tillman was awarded a Silver Star, something friendly fire victims are not eligible for, and pressure was placed on the family to give him a military funeral even though, as a friend told Krakauer, he’d insisted, “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”

But the strong-minded Tillmans turned out to be the wrong family to mislead. Though the Army eventually acknowledged the friendly fire death five weeks after the memorial service, the government answered the Tillmans’ requests for more information by attempting to drown them in paperwork. With the help of Stan Goff, a retired special-ops soldier, they gradually discovered that things were even worse than they imagined.

For it turned out that Pat Tillman was not killed in some tragic but understandable late-night “fog of war” situation. Rather, his death was more like gross negligence, a case of an excess of macho behavior by inexperienced, trigger-happy individuals (reminiscent, in fact, of some of the folks we see in another war documentary, “Restrepo”) who just wanted to blow things up. They shot Tillman, a man they knew, from less than the distance between second base and home plate on a baseball diamond.

Even more upsetting is how long the Army kept this fact secret, how hard the military fought to keep the truth from the Tillmans, and how high the coverup went, extending even to Gen. Stanley McChrystal (recently in the news when he was fired as U.S. commander in Afghanistan), if not even higher. Pat Tillman deserved so much more than this, which is why his story refuses to go away and why we should be glad that it’s been told in such a persuasive manner.