The Tillman Story: movie review

'The Tillman Story' explores how the military tried to spin the NFL star's death to its advantage, creating a myth that his family refused to believe.

Donald Lee/AP/The Weinstein Company
Pat Tillman, left, and his brother Kevin enlisted in the Army soon after the 9/11 attacks. Pat became disillusioned with the war in Iraq, but chose to complete his enlistment even after the government and the NFL worked out a secret way for him to go back to the Arizona Cardinals, where he was a rising star. He was killed by friendly fire during his second tour of duty, in Afghanistan.

Pat Tillman was a rising NFL star with the Arizona Cardinals who turned his back on a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist, along with his brother Kevin, for a three-year tour of duty as an Army Ranger following the Sept. 11 attacks.

In 2002 he was posted to Iraq. His second tour took him to Afghanistan, where the Army reported in April 2004 that, at 27, he had been killed in action after rescuing dozens of his fellow soldiers from a Taliban ambush, an act that won him a posthumous Silver Star.

A few weeks after Tillman was eulogized as a national hero by, among others, President Bush, it was reported by the military that Tillman had, in fact, been killed by friendly fire.

"The Tillman Story," directed by Amir Bar-Lev and narrated by Josh Brolin, is a scathing indictment of how Tillman's death, aided by complicitous media coverage, was cynically manipulated by the military as a propaganda windfall. It's also, in a larger sense, a movie about how our need for heroes can derange our sense of moral rightness.

Tillman was, on the surface, a propagandist's perfect poster boy. He even had the beefy, square-jawed look of a superhero. But he was a great deal more complex than his popular image would indicate.

He was intensely private, and refused to speak publicly about his commitment to enlist. He read Emerson and Noam Chomsky and was an atheist, though he read the Bible. He wanted a civilian, not a military, funeral. When he became disillusioned with the war in Iraq, he chose to play out his full three years even though both the government and the NFL had secretly worked out a way for him to return to football.

If Tillman's wife and his northern California family had chosen to accept the myth that rapidly rose up around Pat, the real story of his death might not have advanced very far. But they tenaciously persisted in rooting out the facts about what happened. Mary, Pat's mother, discovered that the military had burned Pat's uniform, body armor, and diary. The family pored over thousands of pages of redacted documents relating to the military's official investigation and hired a retired special ops officer, Stan Goff, to interpret them.

What emerged is that Pat was shot, accidentally, by members of his own unit, never named, even though he was only 40 yards away. (His dying words reportedly tried to signal them that he was "friendly.") Some of his fellow Rangers remarked in a report that "they wanted to stay in the firefight" even though, at the time of Pat's death, there was no immediate threat. A close friend of Pat says, "I wanted to shoot guns and blow things up." As Goff remarks, the US military imposes "a level of wisdom and maturity on soldiers that doesn't apply to 19-year-olds anywhere, ever."

Following a blistering letter by Pat's father, Pat Sr., accusing the military of fraud, a 2007 congressional hearing was launched in which military leaders, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, were confronted about the alleged coverup, with no active duty soldiers or higher-ups ultimately held responsible for the tragedy.

Despite the lack of a Hollywood ending and the indignation the film inspires, "The Tillman Story" is also oddly exhilarating. It demonstrates the grave pitfalls of mythmaking during wartime and the heroic lengths to which at least one family went to recover the truth. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)

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