Review: ‘The Tillman Story’

We’ve seen a slew of movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the fictionalized ones simply haven’t connected with the public.  Even last year’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker couldn’t manage to pull in large numbers at the box office.

What’s unique about The Tillman Story is that it puts a face on the war, and consequently humanizes it.  You can’t casually dismiss the story of Pat Tillman and his amazing family.  This is not a fiction movie, this is as real as it gets. And it is ugly.

Pat Tillman was charismatic student-athlete who attended Arizona State University on a football scholarship, and later played in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals.  He gave up that career when he, along with his younger brother Kevin, enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11.

The two eventually became Army Rangers, and Pat did a tour in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was during his second tour, in Afghanistan,  that Tillman’s life was cut short.

Initially Tillman was painted as a  hero who died valiantly trying to save his fellow soldiers during a Taliban ambush.  Tillman was praised and awarded the Silver Star posthumously. However, things did not add up to Tillman’s family. They realized that there was much more to the story.

Pat’s mother Dannie plunged into the daunting task of finding out the truth.  It was eventually uncovered that Pat’s death was a tragic (or perhaps intentional) episode of friendly fire.  Making matters worse, government officials knew the true account of his death and “spun” the story to turn Tillman’s death into a recruiting tool.

The chain of command went up through the ranks, all the way to the White House, and the Bush administration. The terrible truth that Tillman was betrayed (in death) by the very people he served with and for is a bitter pill to swallow.

Director Amir Bar-lev does a superb job of using actual documents, talking heads, family members and army colleagues to slowly lay out the entire story. Most documentaries worth their salt have strong central characters, and this is no exception. Pat’s mother Dannie is articulate, poised and a pillar of strength on camera.

I  don’t think there are that many mothers out there that could maintain the same level of composure.  It is clear that she wants her son’s story told, and she will do whatever it takes to make that so.

The result is that she is more sympathetic than say,  Cindy Sheehan, whose story was buried under media stunts and politics. Dannie’s direct approach is straight forward, even-handed, and touching. She is truly an inspiration to mothers everywhere.   This is really Dannie’s story to tell.

Pat and the family are presented warts and all, in order that the entire truth be exposed.  Pat’s atheism is discussed, as well as his growing disillusionment with the military’s true motives.

The documentary follows an unconventional timeline.  We are immediately thrust into the events of the ambush, and it is only later in the movie that Pat’s backstory is explored.  The approach works well, because you are invested in the story behind what really happened right from the opening credits. It’s a jarring and effective beginning.

This is an important movie, and it is one that deserves to be seen.  It triumphs by merely letting the story take the stage without relying on all the propaganda and theatrics we see in other documentaries about the war on terror.  Pat Tillman will indeed leave a lasting legacy, it just isn’t the one the military was hoping for.

The Tillman Story is directed by Amir Bar-lev (My Kid Could Paint That.) Rated R for language.  Written by Mark Monroe (The Cove) and narrated by Josh Brolin.

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