Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story is a heartbreaking and profoundly troubling documentary filled with unanswered questions and hidden truths. Like his previous film, My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story is about an investigation that, in the end, does not come to a satisfying conclusion. In this case, of course, the stakes are much higher.
The Tillman Story is a documentary attempting to expose the truth about the death of Pat Tillman, professional football player who volunteered for the Army Rangers in 2002. Pat Tillman was killed in action, and the government tried to turn his story into the ultimate act of heroism. The Tillman family wanted to know more about how he had died, and this was when the lies and cover-ups came to light.
The filmmaker manages to restore the truth of Tillman’s humanity, and to make a damning case that the military and government at the highest levels were complicit in covering up the cause of Tillman’s death, so that it could be used to influence public opinion in their favor. While his investigation uncovers no significant factual clarification of how Tillman died, and while his document of the congressional hearings into the alleged cover-up end in frustration, Bar-Lev’s film is still a substantial and critical document of post-9/11 America. The Tillman Story goes beyond showing how Tillman’s narrative was twisted to achieve certain ends, and illustrates the eagerness of the American public to embrace a mythology rather than face the true horror of war.
THE TILLMAN STORY reveals a story of gross negligence as some over-zealous American soldiers kill one of their own and an over-zealous military hierarchy becomes anxious to put a happy face on two controversial wars. Beyond that, however, the movie doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, if anything, the movie seems to side with the Tillman family’s nihilistic atheist humanism, as represented by the foul-mouthed anti-religious vitriol coming from Tillman’s brother, who is rightfully upset about his brother’s sudden death. Ironically, the filmmakers fail to really explore this side of the family’s story, perhaps for fear of making the family look bad. If so, they may have made the same mistake that the military made.