by KYW’s Bill Wine —
The rescue attempted by this engrossing, spin-combatting probe is the reclaiming of Pat Tillman’s identity and legacy.
Narrated by Josh Brolin, The Tillman Story is a combat corrective, an investigative documentary about the death of US Army corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004.
We come away from it with nagging questions remaining unanswered, but also with an enhanced appreciation of the dangers of distortion and the maddening manipulativeness of mythmaking.
Square-jawed, complex Tillman graduated from Arizona State University, where he starred as a linebacker, to a gaudy, high-profile football career with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
But following the tragic 9/11 attacks, he walked away from his thriving and lucrative football gig and, together with his younger brother Kevin, enlisted with the Army Rangers, beginning a tour of duty in Iran and then a second tour in Afghanistan to fight Taliban insurgents.
In April of 2004, the Army reported that Tillman had been killed in action after bravely saving a number of his fellow soldiers from an enemy ambush, thus earning a posthumous Silver Star.
But a short time later, Tillman’s grieving family learned that very little of the detailed account of the heroic way he died was true.
What the military had conspired to cover up, apparently, was an elusive episode of fog-of-war friendly fire, and the official record had been falsified to turn an embarrassing tragedy into an inspiring myth that would serve as a first-class recruiting weapon.
Tillman’s determined mother, father, brothers, and widow researched tirelessly for the next several years and then accused the Defense Department of fraud.
Their struggle for definitive answers and someone’s accountability is both understandable and admirable, their frustration palpable, and their ultimate disappointment heartbreaking, never more so than when, during a sequence in which the Bush administration’s secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and his stonewalling generals are so obviously and disgracefully lying during a recorded Congressional hearing.
Trusting the emotional power of his material, director Amir Bar-Lev, working from a script by Mark Monroe, takes the standard documentary approach, mixing talking-head interviews and anecdotal accounts with archival news footage and dramatic reenactments, and at the same time avoiding the temptation to gild the lily by, for example, including hyperbolic football footage.
But if the director errs on the side of understatement, it’s because he is bending over backwards not to do exactly what he is demonstrating that the military brass did do.
The tendencies of the government, the military, the media, and (let’s face it) the public in the direction of military glorification bubbles ever-so-slightly beneath the surface throughout and makes it obvious why calculated propaganda campaigns work so well.
So we’ll tackle 3 stars out of 4 for this muckraking and occasionally enraging documentary. The Tillman Story is a search for the life-size truth behind the Pat Tillman cover story as a way of restoring to a legitimately selfless hero his unvarnished humanity.