The title tells you what’s important: It’s not “The Tillman Incident” or “The Tillman Facts,” it’s “The Tillman Story.”
“The story” — at least the first one — was that NFL star-turned-G.I.-Joe Pat Tillman died heroically saving his buddies from enemy fire. The media and politicians ate it up. They wanted to believe it, and they were happy to spread it. The problem is that the story wasn’t true. Later the story became that Tillman was killed by “friendly fire,” although that story was incomplete too.
Tillman was probably killed by a gung-ho fellow American, though that story didn’t come to light until after an army investigation, and even then it was buried in a pile of noise. Maybe it’s not until this documentary’s release that the public will have a chance to know what really happened.
Pat Tillman’s family wants to know whose idea it was to keep spreading the false story that was too good to be true.
Two Sides to Every Story
The Tillman Story is enlightening if nothing else. The circus-like atmosphere in which it Tillman’s death was reported made me want to avoid it, but of course I heard the it. The Tillman Story ’s first complaint is that this publicity came from the same military that banned photos of flag-draped coffins ostensibly to respect the privacy of the families. Yet here was a media circus for the Tillman family.
Tillman’s mother, father, and youngest brother — so long the public face of loss — go on-camera one more time (Pat’s middle brother who joined him in Afghanistan only appears at in public footage) to tell their story.
They talk about grieving in public. As his mother and father speak about this idea, director Amir Bar-Lev shows some amazingly tasteless footage of the Tillman parents standing in a stadium full of people to honor Pat’s memory while bare-bellied cheerleaders dance in front of the deceased’s family. It’s a surreal combination that shames any of us who were part of that cheering crowd.
The Tillman Story covers a lot of ground. It reminds us of the news cycle that followed Pat’s death. It follows Pat’s parents as they try to discover how Pat really died and hold someone accountable for the official lies that lasted for weeks. Along the way the movie fills in personal details from that the public didn’t know. Tillman’s youngest brother, for example, corrects some of the higher profile speakers at Pat’s funeral: “Pat is not ‘with God,’ he’s fuckin’ dead; he wasn’t religious.”
The movie also raises bigger questions about fame, privacy, and the army’s wish to control information.
Tellingly, Tillman was in on the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch. Her rescue was another media circus, almost certainly spun by the Army to boost its image. Tillman wrote that they could have simply walked in and carried her out. Instead, the operation was delayed to give the camera crew time to arrive. Tillman was disgusted. We can guess he’d feel the same way about story the army told about him.
The film’s climax is the revealing and reassembling of the story of Pat’s death. After getting separated from another vehicle, Pat’s drove ahead into a deep winding canyon. When the second vehicle had up, Pat had climbed up the hillside with another soldier, looking down at the road. The soldiers form the other vehicle started firing on Pat’s position. Official speculation is that the other soldiers were trigger happy and just wanted a target.
There are stories that The Tillman Story doesn’t tell. It offers no information on the identities of the people who might have shot Tillman, though surely they are known. And we don’t know how Tillman’s middle brother feels about this documentary — he didn’t participate, and maybe he thinks it’s just as bad as what the media circus stirred by the army’s first story.
There isn’t a satisfying conclusion to Tillman’s story. His parents still feel like they don’t have the full story, and they seem resigned to never knowing. They took their case all the way to congress, where the Secretary of Defense and several generals responded “I don’t remember” to politely asked questions from toothless congressmen.
But there is some satisfaction to be had in joining the Tillmans in their saddened outrage. You get the feeling that they appreciate you taking the time to learn the story behind the story, and hearing Pat’s wishes for yourself. Anyone who followed the first Tillman story when it broke probably owes it to the family to see The Tillman Story to help set the record straight.