Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:
The death of Pat Tillman, the National Football League star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire — or “fratricide,” as the military puts it — in Afghanistan in April 2004, was a strange event in recent American history. On one hand, Tillman’s death was covered far more extensively than those of any of the other 4,700 or so United States troops killed in the Iraqi and Afghan combat zones. To put it bluntly, he was the only celebrity among them.
On the other hand, Tillman’s story remains poorly understood and has little social resonance. As a colleague of mine recently put it, Tillman didn’t fit, either as a living human being or a posthumous symbol into the governing political narratives of our polarized national conversation. That’s true whether you’re on the right or the left. If he struck many people at first as a macho, hyper-patriotic caricature — the small-town football hero who went to war without asking questions — it eventually became clear that was nowhere near accurate. Yet Tillman was also more idiosyncratic than the equally stereotypical ’60s-style combat vet turned longhair peacenik.
Mind you, Tillman might well have become a left-wing activist, had he lived longer. He had read Noam Chomsky’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy, and hoped to meet Chomsky in person. But as Amir Bar-Lev’s haunting and addictive documentary “The Tillman Story” demonstrates, Tillman was such an unusual blend of personal ingredients that he could have become almost anything. It’s a fascinating film, full of drama, intrigue, tragedy and righteous indignation, but maybe its greatest accomplishment is to make you feel the death of one young man — a truly independent thinker who hewed his own way through the world, in the finest American tradition — as a great loss.
Eric Kohn at Indie Wire:
Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” tracks the uneasy investigation into the reality of the player’s death launched by his family in the wake of an official attempt to celebrate him as a hero. Each step of the way, the corruption grows slightly deeper: The military waits until after Tillman’s funeral before declaring that he was killed by friendly fire, but his parents and siblings determine that the story runs even deeper than that. An unnaturally humble public figure, Tillman never revealed his intentions for going to war—but a twisted publicity campaign launched in the wake of his death assumed otherwise.
The government turned Tillman into a hero, elevating his posthumous stature while burying the atrocious errors that led to his death. Recounting the events through interviews with the Tillman family and previously classified government documents, director Amir Bar-Lev provides an exhaustive account of the wrongdoings at hand. It’s not the sole definitive version of the story—Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” came out in 2009—but by framing the story as a conspiracy thriller, Bar-Lev finds a natural cinematic hook: Coming across like “The Manchurian Candidate” as a ghost story or “All the President’s Men” with civilian journalists, “The Tillman Story” is loaded with dramatic potential.
Bar-Lev assembles the story with layers of media, old and new. He finds a compelling plot point in the contrast between the mainstream Tillman narrative and his family’s background struggles.Voice-overs accompany footage of Tillman’s stone-faced relatives at a massive memorial held in the Arizona stadium where he used to play for the Cardinals. They express their frustration on the soundtrack while news cameras capture it on their faces. Distraught over the elevation of Tillman to the level of a trite patriotic symbol, their anger drives them toward detective work. “He didn’t really fit into that box,” exclaims Tillman’s mother, Mary, sounding both mournful and disappointed that the country her sons served let them down.
Kurt Schlichter at Big Hollywood:
Call me fussy, but I prefer that my conspiracies and cover-ups actually involve conspiracies and cover-ups. The Tillman Story, a new leftist documentary on football player turned Army Airborne Ranger turned friendly fire casualty turned symbol of…something…posits a massive conspiracy to do…something…and an enormous cover-up of…something…but never quite explains what. However, there are lots of ominous shots of George Bush and Karl Rove, so we can somehow gather that whatever it is is, in some way, all Bushitler’s fault.
This is a bad film, both in its execution and its intent. As a lawyer, it insults my intelligence. As a veteran, it insults my professionalism. As an audience member, it failed me as a film. Pat Tillman, first seen in footage sitting nearly silently in a studio, begins the film as a cipher and ends as a cipher. I know little more about the man or his motivations than I did coming in. All I know is that I could not wait for it to be over.
This over-praised documentary is based on the premise that there was an enormous, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, which is a problem for the filmmaker since it is clear there is no giant, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman. The filmmakers cannot explain who conspired, or what they conspired to do. Was there a cover-up? Of what? The film desperately wants there to be one, as does the family – perhaps that would give them the story the producers need and generate the meaning the family wants. But, as the film demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt, there isn’t one. This is a story of mistakes, not malice.
Pat Tillman died in a tragic battlefield accident. That happens – young men, powerful weapons, and “the fog of war” all combine to make fratricide a terrible and ever-present reality of infantry combat. I know nothing about the circumstances of Tillman’s death other than what the film showed (including several instances where the camera focused on Army investigation documents that revealed information the filmmakers did not highlight). But what the film shows makes it clear that there are no “unanswered questions.”
John Nolte at Big Hollywood:
On May 3rd, 2004, a memorial for Pat Tillman took place in San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and both his family and the whole world believed he had been killed in a Taliban ambush during a brave attempt to draw their fire in order to save his own men. Just a few weeks later, the Army would come forward to acknowledge that this narrative was wrong and that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.
At this point, the question that came to my mind was why would the Pentagon and the Bush Administration voluntarily come forward and uncover their own conspiracy? The film makes no mention of any outside pressure on the Pentagon from the Tillman family or even the media to get the bottom of anything. Meaning that at this point everyone believed the initial report and apparently all the Administration and military had to do to keep us all believing was to keep their mouths shut.
So the question is: If the idea was to use Tillman’s death for nefarious pro-war purposes, why just a few weeks after the memorial service would those with the most to lose from doing so, voluntarily kick over a political hornets’ nest by telling the truth? Why not milk the situation for as long as possible and for as much propaganda as possible, especially with a presidential election just five months off? At the very least, why not save all the political heartache and fallout this revelation was sure to bring (and did) and stall until after Bush is reelected?
A producer once told me that whenever you have a film character open a refrigerator door you either have to show them close it or include the sound effect of the door closing, or else the audience will get unsettled thinking the door has been left open. Bar-Lev’s refusal to address or explain why a supposed-group of conspirators would of their own volition blow the whistle on their own supposed conspiracy leaves that door open. And no fancy camera move or sinister scoring is going to close it.
Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline:
Bar-Lev — whose previous directing credits include the 2007 My Kid Could Paint That — trusts his instincts enough to know that he doesn’t need to embellish or intensify any angle of this story to make it more dramatic or more affecting. His treatment of Tillman’s parents is particularly low-key. Dannie Tillman, who has since written a book about her son’s case, speaks at one point about how uncomfortable it is to be a parent grieving intensely and privately in the midst of a grand and glitzy public outpouring of grief. Against that, Bar-Lev shows footage of Dannie, Patrick Sr. and Marie standing stiffly and politely on a football field as earnest speeches are made and marching-band music is played. At one point, incomprehensibly, a team of prancing and high-kicking dancers line up before them, a truly weird way of honoring a fallen soldier.
The Tillman Story is often painful to watch, even when the images in front of us are nothing more than military documents that have been marked, by Dannie, with a highlighter. Dannie was given thousands of pages of official reports and documents by the U.S. military, a sea of pages with every significant name or detail blacked out; the presumption was that once she started going through this material, she’d simply become exhausted and give up. But with Goff’s help, Dannie unearthed many of the more excruciating secrets surrounding her son’s death, notably the fact that the soldiers responsible for it (their story isn’t told here, and appears to be wholly shrouded in secrecy) explained their actions by saying, “I was excited,” and, “I wanted to stay in the firefight” — details the U.S. military wouldn’t be particularly eager to publicize, for obvious reasons, and which can only intensify a parent’s suffering.
Bar-Lev recently lost an appeal to have the MPAA ratings board change the rating for The Tillman Story from an R — for the movie’s use of, as the ratings board so delicately puts it, “excessive language” — to a PG-13. That’s particularly cutting considering that one of the most piercing revelations in The Tillman Story is that Tillman’s last words, shouted out as a last-ditch effort to keep his fellow soldiers from shooting at him, were “I’m Pat f*cking Tillman.” Sometimes the use of an expletive, beyond being a sticking point for a group of de facto censors, really is a matter of life and death.