Film Review: The Tillman Story

One of the year’s most important films, magnificently stirring proof that there are forms of heroism which go far beyond those officially sanctioned by the so-called powers-that-be.

When I first saw a photo of slain soldier/football star Pat Tillman, I was struck by the unbelievable iconography of his chiseled, square-jawed All-American face, worthy of Mt. Rushmore in its heroic proportions. Evidently, I was not alone. As Amir Bar-Lev‘s superb, vitally important documentary The Tillman Story points out, certain powers-that-be, running all the way up to the White House, also noticed his iconic look, along with a more cynical possibility for self-serving exploitation.

Although initial reports had Tillman slain by enemy warfare, it was subsequently revealed that he was killed by friendly fire, and here that term has never seemed more euphemistically ridiculous. “I’m Pat Fucking Tillman!” were the man’s last words before being mowed down by his own battalion in a botched reconnaissance endeavor. The Army, in its attempts to cover up any notion of fratricide, put together a film tracing the movements of that final day for Tillman’s family, which Bar-Lev includes here, along with the sometimes differing verbal accounts of a couple of soldiers present that day, and the resultant combination proves to be one of the greatest, most exciting and tragic accounts of the chaos and terror of war ever lensed.

Tillman’s mother, Dannie, made it her personal quest to get to the truth behind her son’s death and her tireless efforts, always met with evasion and downright lies from the military, constitute the huge heart of the film. It is in itself a great if incredibly dismaying story, which matches that of Pat himself, the sports star who gave it all up to serve a country he believed in. His sacrifice, however, was not met in kind, as his death was used by the Army and war-mongering politicians (Bush, Rumsfeld, the usual suspects, along with a cadre of multi-starred generals) to further the cause of Middle East military intervention. Tillman’s body armor, uniform and vest were burned to erase any signs of fratricide and he was posthumously given a fraudulent Silver Star for valor in combat. Although intensely private about his exact reasons for enlisting and an avowed atheist who expressed disillusionment with both the Army and the war he had joined up for, these realities were overlooked in a consensual , officially authorized, media-supported presentation of him as a right-wing-idealized, God-fearing flag-waver.

When Tillman’s case subsequently received a Congressional hearing by the House Oversight Committee, Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and three top-ranking generals all denied any kind of cover-up and could not recall when they’d received an essentially incriminating memo from General Stanley McChrystal—who’d approved the Silver Star—stating that Tillman may indeed have been killed by friendly fire. The film notes that nearly 200 e-mails were exchanged regarding how President Bush was to acknowledge Tillman’s death, and to see these generals and Rumsfeld waffling before the committee like a bunch of nervously ass-covering schoolboys is to make anyone seriously fear and doubt this country’s leadership. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” applied to the Tillman case as well, with Bryan O’Neal, a soldier close to Pat who had testified at the Congressional hearing, ostracized and demoted, while a hapless General Philip Kensinger, head of Joint Special Operations, was singled out and scapegoated by the military for his involvement in the cover-up and stripped of a star.

Bar-Lev has done an exemplary job in collating all the facts of his—and Dannie Tillman’s—research, and his film is blessed by trenchant interviews both with those who knew and fought alongside Tillman and outside observers like Stan Goff, a retired soldier who writes and maintains a blog ( about the use of perception management in war. As you see the splashy glorification, with the statues and tributes and the grandiose military funeral which Tillman had expressly never wanted, with all those lying authorities grandiosely present, the words of his wife and childhood sweetheart, Marie, ring all the more ironic and heartbreaking: “Putting people up on a pedestal lets the rest of us off the hook.”