Dir. Amir Bar-Lev
(2010, R, 95 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

What happened to Pat Tillman is not uncommon in the American media, which likes to reduce complex subjects to easy-to-digest hero narratives. Think Captain Sullenberger, the Chilean miners, and Iraq POW Jessica Lynch, who is also referenced in The Tillman Story to demonstrate how much America loves a good story, and more than that how much the media loves to sell a good story, whether it’s true or not, using overwrought, sentimental language that’s less about honoring the subject than it is about flaunting our capacity to be inspired by the subject. It’s not about honoring anyone; it’s hero-worship masturbation.

There’s a particularly striking instance of it in this film: Maria Shriver, at Tillman’s memorial service, spoke in platitudes about his soul being in a better place, only to be immediately corrected by Tillman’s little brother, who responded in his own statement, “He’s not with God. He’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.” Such direct honesty has no place in a hero narrative, because it leaves no room for us to flatter ourselves for our sensitivity.

Director Amir Bar-Lev

Of course, there was something even more offensive about the Tillman story as it unfolded: not a word of it was true. Worse, Tillman, who consciously avoided publicity regarding his enlistment and left explicit instructions to his wife to prevent having his death hijacked as a PR stunt, was exploited in death precisely the way he hoped to avoid. The politicians who made their careers heralding their support for our military, and demonized those who disagreed with them as anti-military, betrayed a fallen soldier and his family with spectacular cynicism. And they got away with it.

Pat Tillman was a pro football player whose decision to turn down a million-dollar NFL contract already made him a patriotism pin-up. When he was killed in action in a clear case of friendly fire in April 2004, the military leadership rewrote it as a heroic sacrifice to save his platoon from enemy combatants and awarded him the Silver Star. After the real story began to emerge, a campaign of damage control began, writing off both Tillman’s death and the false characterization of it as accidents in the fog of war. Eventually the buck was passed to retired Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, leaving out the most senior officials, including President Bush, all of whom received a memo warning them of potential blowback if the truth ever came out.

Memo? What memo? None of them can recall whether they did or did not receive such a memo, according to their testimony before Congress. No one believed them, least of all Tillman’s family, but they lacked the concrete proof to cut through their plausible deniability, and the Congressional investigators, it seemed, lacked the will.

The Tillman Story doesn’t achieve justice, per se. It’s a straightforward, emotional account of the controversy and its aftermath that serves instead to reclaim the life and memory of Pat Tillman for the Tillman family, and not for the politicians that used him, the media that sold him, or the public that mourned him with false assumptions about who he was. As reported by the Tillmans and director Amir Bar-Lev’s film, he was dutiful but critical of the Iraq War, intellectually curious, a reckless thrill-seeker, and he cursed a lot.