director Amir Bar-Lev
There may be many ways to feel about the reality behind The Tillman Story but it’s hard for me to imagine any variation that doesn’t include being extremely pissed off.
Pat Tillman was the former NFL star who enlisted in the Army Rangers after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, abandoning a multi-million dollar contract to fight for his country. Tillman did fight in Afghanistan, but he was also tragically killed by “friendly fire,” the euphemism for being killed by one’s own side by mistake.
This, in itself, was perhaps an accident that didn’t have to happen, an unfortunate situation that probably bore various degrees of inevitability. In “the fog of war” it is something that is tragic but understandable, amid the chaos of firefights, foreign lands, with death and ambush all around at any time.
But the thing that is the pisser is how Tillman’s story was spun. So very much against his wishes.
Like perhaps many people, when a square-jawed football player jumps on the war bandwagon, the thought is that “this guy is your typical American war-hawk, full of pride, but blindly following a military force that God knows how such blind faith will be rewarded” (or some such thing.)
This is a discredit to Tillman. From a long line of American military men, who had served in many wars and fought for the ideals of the country, he wasn’t your average jock by any means. Growing up outside of San Jose, he was a local boy (to us here) and his family, while strong on many traditional American values were also not entirely of that world either. They were atheists for one. They believed in an individualism of American values that far exceeded that of others willing to put their lives at risk in defending.
The bottom line is that Tillman was not a glory-seeker. He signed documents when he enlisted asking specifically not to be made into a model, hero, martyr. He was serving for his own beliefs. His notoriety was not something that he pursued. And once he had served some time, he started really questioning American foreign policy. The film suggest that he even met with Noam Chomsky, a noted critic of American foreign policy. Tillman was serving his time, and dutifully, but he was at odds with what was really happening in the war.
And the government tried to use him as a model of American ideals. Against his wishes. And that thing about being killed by his own side? That was something that needed to be suppressed.
This is a story of lies and subterfuge, an attempt to make a martyr and hero of a man who was certainly heroic, but humble. The irony is that his heroism had as much to do with “the truth” and free speech as it did with “fighting the good fight”. The administration wanted to use him, his image, his surface as an icon, a football player, enlistee, a true fighting American, while ignoring his own desires and the truth of his ignoble death.
One of the great moments from this story, caught for the film, is when his brother is at the big, military funeral, broadcast widely and attended by many important people, proselytized by many. His brother says thank you to the people but that Pat was not up in Heaven. He was an athiest. He was “fucking dead”.
The integrity of the Tillman family comes through in a way that is extremely compelling, a family of unquestionable American ideals, including those that don’t gibe with becoming a war hero, a military emblem, a campaign image. Beyond this, they’ve had to fight for the truth of Tillman’s death, through the lies of the government, the true “gratitude” handed out to someone who offered themselves for their country.
It’s a story of crude ironies and yet of true heroism and American values.