By WALLACE BAINE
The story of what exactly happened to Pat Tillman in Afghanistan is still a mystery. But the overriding theme in Amir Bar-Lev’s heartbreaking documentary “The Tillman Story” — opening Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz — is that the account of Tillman’s battlefield death is better left as a mystery than a myth.
“The Tillman Story” lays out in probing detail what we know about the circumstances of the combat death of the former NFL star in the spring of 2004. If it’s accurate, and no one has stepped forward with a more convincing account, then it not only sheds light on the specifics of Tillman’s death but it serves as a devastating metaphor for the tragedy of the twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We all know that Tillman was killed as a result of a “friendly fire” incident. But the assumption of the public – and the military’s assertion – is that the killing was a case of the “fog of war,” the kind of tragic but unavoidable mistake that happens in tense, confusing, deadly circumstances.
But director Bar-Lev offers up a different narrative, an interpretation suggesting that Tillman’s death was due to over-aggressive soldiers itching to prove their mettle by shooting at anything that moves.
Read into that what you will, but it’s clear that Bar-Lev’s more immediate target is the specific actions of higher-ups in the military and the Bush administration who were accused of attempting to cynically exploit Tillman’s death for its own P.R. purposes.
Notice that the film is called “The Tillman Story,” not “The Pat Tillman Story,” and I suspect that’s intentional. Pat, however heroic his biography, shares the spotlight here with his family, most notably his mother Mary Tillman whose tenacity in seeking answers to her son’s death resulted in the remarkable spectacle of the Secretary of Defense being dragged before a Congressional committee.
If Pat Tillman’s story isn’t well-known, it should be. He grew up in San Jose and attended Leland High School, where his prowess on the football field led to a successful career, first at Arizona State, then with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. After the 9/11 attacks, Pat and his brother Kevin made a secret vow to join the Army together . Pat became essentially the only American celebrity to serve in Afghanistan.
The picture that emerged of Pat Tillman following his death was that of a brave, all-American patriot who died defending American freedom. But the portrait that the film presents is much more complicated. Tillman, defying the easy script, was said to be an atheist who was known to lace his speech with salty language. The Tillman family’s habitual use of the f-bomb is a theme that runs throughout the film, from brother Richard’s searingly raw eulogy at Pat’s memorial service to the angry letter Pat’s father sent to the military demanding answers.
The picture of Pat Tillman that finally crystalizes doesn’t quite fit with any of the easy left- or right-wing caricatures. Obviously, his sense of bravery, duty and modesty were extraordinary. But otherwise, he comes across as a down-to-earth guy, someone you might know in the neighborhood who would surprise you with unexpected interests and passions. His mother emerges as well as a pugnacious Everywoman who took her case as far as it could possibly go.
If the whodunit surrounding Tillman’s death is ultimately unsatisfying, it serves only as a reminder that “The Tillman Story” is dealing with real people and real events where you never get the whole story, the truth doesn’t always emerge, and justice is not always served. This film is a level-headed and compassionate look at what happens when a country faces a tragic and galling human-scale reality:
We killed one of our own, one of our best.