The Tillman Story: A Tale that Needed to be Told

Oct 24th, 2010

The name might already be familiar to you from news reports during the mid-2000s. Pat Tillman was a young American football player who chose to put his career on hold in order to join the US Army. When he was killed on duty in Afghanistan, he was held up as the archetypal all-American hero by his fans, the media, the US military, and President Bush. But his family was suspicious of the official story and started to ask questions. This film documents the gradual revelation of a cover-up which occurred not just for the sake of the US Army’s image, but for the image of war itself.

In some respects, Amir Bar-Lev’s latest film is reminiscent of standard TV-documentaries, with its talking-head interviews and archive footage. But original clips from news reports are used sparingly, whittled down into montage sequences which imply that news outlets mindlessly parrot the latest official line. Similarly, clips of interviews with Tillman’s family and colleagues are kept brief, and are judiciously chosen: not one remark is banal or fails to bring a new fact or insight to the story. It is a well-crafted documentary, as it clearly and succinctly explains events which could easily have become over-complicated and dull. It avoids the use of confusing military jargon. It takes no more than two minutes to explain how Tillman’s family dealt with 3,000 pages of censored military documents relating to his death. To explain what happened in an ambush, it uses one simple diagram, a small amount of original video footage, and only the most illustrative commentary from Tillman’s friends and family.

This documentary also stands out is for the understated way in which its images reinforce what is said in interviews. For example, a war veteran points out that 19-year-old boys just want to prove their masculinity: they aren’t mature enough to go to war for the sake of high ideals. This interview is followed by footage of new recruits in a helicopter, showing the young soldiers grinning with child-like excitement, one of them using two fingers to ‘squash’ the shadow cast by the helicopter on the treetops below. Similarly, Tillman’s fellow soldiers explain their selfish motivations for going to war, or talk about the standard ‘meat-head jock’ types who join the army. Subsequent images of the macho young soldiers in Iraq begin to look more nightmarish than noble. Even more striking is the way in which early sequences anticipate the film’s final message. Images of an entire football stadium expressing its adulation for the fallen warrior serve to defamiliarize modern customs: the spectacle seems strange and unreal, more like ancient Rome than contemporary Western life. This impression is reinforced by the impassive faces of Tillman’s family, who are clearly uneasy at having been co-opted to a central role in the ceremony.

This is a film which will be of interest even to those who don’t particularly like war stories or American football. Its most engaging aspect is the humanity of its subjects: Tillman is remembered as someone who was kind, down-to-earth, and interested in everything. His family are concerned and cautious, rather than cynical or irate as you might expect. The government, the military and the media tried to mould Tillman’s memory to fit a stereotype, yet neither Tillman nor his family felt comfortable with reductive mythologies which turn successful athletes into gods and brave soldiers into saints. They argue in favour of the complete human being, with his own particular characteristics and opinions, which might not match establishment values of Dieu, famille, patrie (God, family, country). In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Tillman’s younger brother gives a pithy eulogy rejecting on his brother’s behalf the military and religious platitudes expressed by the funeral’s high-profile guests. Tillman’s personal qualities are also recalled by the rest of his family and by Bryan O’Neill, one of the smaller soldiers in his regiment who admired him and refused to hide the truth when Tillman died.

This is not a documentary with a straightforward, didactic message. Its theme is developed gradually, and is about complexities, not just in human beings, but in war itself. Although the audience will feel great regret at the death of a kind and talented young man, the film is not only about Tillman: it is about the lengths to which the government will go in order to make war acceptable to the electorate. One notable quality of this film is that it avoids manipulating the audience’s emotions. Some documentaries leave you feeling angry or depressed, and this may be because they present an important problem without offering a clear solution. In the case of The Tillman Story, there is a sense that the making of the film constitutes a big step towards solving the problem. Tillman’s family was most disappointed because, while the cover-up did become public, the upper echelons of the military refused to admit their complicity in it. However, the truth is there to see in footage of the nervous prevarications of Donald Rumsfeld and other high-profile representatives of the US military who are forced to testify at a congressional hearing regarding their knowledge of the Tillman case. Although the real consequences of war are becoming more apparent with every year the current conflict continues, this documentary has an important role to play in increasing public awareness of governments’ deliberate attempts to conceal the reality of war.

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