Like so many films and documentaries that have come out criticizing the war in Iraq, Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story is saying something that needs to be heard. But also like so many of those same films, the people who need most to listen are the least likely to, while those who will listen won’t be as shocked and outraged as Bar-Lev would like them to be.
The documentary tells the story of Pat Tillman, a former NFL player who made headlines when he gave up the millions of dollars he could’ve made playing professional football to instead enlist in the Army after the attacks of 9/11. Tillman is painted as atypical and complex, a natural athlete who’s no mere jock, but instead reads Chomsky and Emerson. He’s a man who wants to defend his country in Afghanistan, but finds invading Iraq unjust.
It’s this complexity that sets up the rest of the film. The Tillman Story documents the government’s cover-up of Pat’s death by friendly fire in Iraq—instead spinning what happened into a story of heroism and pro-war propaganda—and his family’s attempts at getting to the truth. The bulk of the movie is dedicated to the Tillman family’s refusal to allow Pat’s memory to be used for furthering an agenda, never keeping quiet or kowtowing, and fighting the U.S. military’s resistance to tell them what really happened.
The film argues that the knowledge of the cover-up went all the way to the highest levels of government—to President Bush—and that Congress and the media failed to hold the military accountable. The film wants to show how our government and military are able to deceive the public with zero consequence. The problem with this, however, is that these revelations are probably not as shocking as the film would like them to be.
I must admit my own disillusionment when it comes to politicians and military leaders, and my own jaded, dissatisfied view of the war. I was not shocked by the idea that the powers that be can be conniving and deceitful—or even by the film’s lesser point that our troops could be trigger-happy and bloodthirsty. I doubt any of this will come as a surprise to most in The Tillman Story’s target audience. Still, just because the movie isn’t all that revelatory, doesn’t mean its message shouldn’t be paid attention to. Rated R for language.