Movie Review

The Tillman Story

In search of Pat Tillman: Documentary shows celebrity was his own man

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 3, 2010

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The title of Amir Bar-Lev’s new documentary is “The Tillman Story,’’ but which Pat Tillman are we talking about? The Department of Defense and the Bush administration’s? The NFL’s? His mom’s? The larger drama of the film — and “The Tillman Story’’ is as taut and suspenseful as any fictional mystery — is the way it slowly burrows through layers of public Pat Tillmans, peeling them back like onion skin, to arrive at a riddle: a charismatic young man who turned his back on celebrity to engage the world.

The film’s more immediate drama lies in the Tillman family’s refusal to let Pat be used in death as he refused to be used in life, as a propaganda chip, the gung-ho face of the Bush wars. The facts are these: Tillman was a naturally gifted pro footballer who, after three years with the Arizona Cardinals, turned down a $3.6 million contract and joined the Army Rangers in 2002. He refused to discuss the matter or otherwise grandstand, maintaining only that it was a private decision.

On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed when members of his own unit mistook him and others for enemy combatants. The Army, however, told his family Pat had died heroically during an ambush. His personal effects (including a diary) were destroyed, the facts were kept from his brother Kevin, a soldier in the same unit, and the ambush story was embellished by Army speakers at Tillman’s memorial service and in the Silver Star citation he was posthumously awarded. The news media ate it up: an irresistible narrative of a jut-jawed all-American boy who died for his country.

And it was all a lie. Five weeks later, the Defense Department admitted that Tillman had been the victim of friendly fire, and the family’s descent into a Kafkaesque world of bureaucratic dead ends and plausible denial began. “The Tillman Story’’ covers several fronts, interviewing fellow Rangers who describe in detail what happened on April 22 — no enemy combatants were anywhere in the vicinity, it turns out; Tillman essentially died of his unit’s trigger-happiness.

Bar-Lev also follows Pat’s indomitable mother, Dannie, as she plows through 3,000 pages of redacted documents trying to retrofit the facts. We hear from the lieutenant general who misled the first investigation then became the conveniently retired fall guy for the second. And we see footage of a House Committee investigation at which former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a room full of generals glibly deny knowledge of a memo they received five days after Tillman’s death — and before the memorial service — discussing the likelihood of friendly fire.

I wish Bar-Lev had found a few other voices besides a blogger to serve as his go-to expert on military infrastructure — granted, the blogger in question, Stan Goff, has served everywhere from Vietnam to Grenada to El Salvador to Somalia. Otherwise, “The Tillman Story’’ is on firm ground as its inquiry slowly widens into moral disgust. Why did the Army lie about Tillman’s death as they had about the rescue of Jessica Lynch? Because war needs propaganda and propaganda needs stars: empty vessels into which can be poured marketable notions of sacrifice, patriotism, and martyrdom. Sometimes these things are earned, but when they’re not, and when you have a war to defend to taxpayers, they have to be invented.

What’s fascinating about Tillman, both alive and dead, is how he resisted being made into anybody’s man but his own. He was a big, hulking jock with a 3.84 GPA, a religious skeptic who read the Koran and the Book of Mormon, a born star who by all accounts deeply distrusted the star-making machinery that is this country’s greatest, most problematic gift to the world, and who was profoundly suspicious of the ways in which he knew his government would try to spin who he was.

That’s a radical position to stake out, and it makes one mourn Tillman all the more and regret his stupid, needless death. What an example he could have made in a public sphere that lives and dies by fame. What an example he and his family are for insisting on the privacy of identity — on all the boxes you can’t put a person into. “The Tillman Story’’ opens and closes with raw footage from promotional videos made for the Arizona Cardinals; Pat stares into the camera and repeatedly says “I am Pat Tillman.’’ And still we’re no closer. Who was Pat Tillman? Himself. That’s all you and the US Army need to know.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him at


Directed by: Amir Bar-Lev

Written by: Mark Monroe

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 94 minutes

Rated: R (language)

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