The story of Pat Tillman's life and death is all that Hollywood craves: heroism, iconoclasm, conspiracy, sports, a little romance, a lot of tragedy. Imagine how much the studios would love to make a movie about the NFL safety who quit pro football to fight alongside his brother in Iraq and Afghanistan only to die accidentally at the hands of his fellow rangers. For good or bad, this is one true story they won't get their hands on, at least not for a long while. In the meantime, The Tillman Story, a documentary from director Amir Bar-Lev, gets behind the making of a would-be legend in a way that may invalidate any future attempt at a biopic.
Just as his prior film, My Kid Could Paint That, subverted ideas about art, especially as a commodity, Bar-Lev's latest questions the entire nature of myth-making, particularly as collaborated by government and media in time of war. Additionally The Tillman Story is a fascinating look at a kind of family too rarely seen in the 21st century. Between reality television and the continued obsession with celebrity deaths, we're so used to seeing people exploit their own family members, living or dead, for the sake of fame and fortune that it's unbelievable how protective Tillman's parents, brothers, friends and widow are of his image and legacy. Ultimately, The Tillman Story is as much about what isn't discussed as what is.
You may know the basics, that Pat Tillman, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, was killed and then immediately turned into a hero, celebrated by the Bush administration and elsewhere as having died valiantly as a defender of freedom. Weeks later it was revealed he did not sacrifice himself to save his platoon, as originally reported; rather, he was the victim of friendly fire in a horribly confusing incident. Given my suspicious mind, it immediately sounded to me entirely premeditated, yet I am glad Bar-Lev avoids the theories that Tillman was intentionally murdered in order to be utilized as a propaganda tool. It is enough to document the known corruptions and exploitations, including a definite -- though mostly denied -- cover-up by most military leaders of the truth behind Tillman's death.
Yes, General McChrystal is among those allegedly involved, and though he's only mentioned for a moment in the documentary, it was enough to excite the large audience at Silverdocs. The uproar (seriously, I heard enough loud exclamations of "oh geez!" that I missed what the film actually had to say of McChrystal's part in the matter) somewhat ironically reminds me of how even controversy can be part of the myth machine. And so I wonder if in a way The Tillman Story still feeds a legend -- if not the government-desired legend -- of its subject.
Just as the dramatic film Flags of Our Fathers previously tackled the concept of military lore and its affect on real lives distorted for PR purposes, Bar-Lev's documentary provides a new narrative to an old story it means to correct and clarify. And while the film, which was written by Mark Monroe (The Cove) and hits on agitprop machinations both completely made up (such as John Wayne movies) and embellished from real life (the Jessica Lynch story, in which Tillman played a part as one of her saviors), appears to be a necessity in terms of both telling the truth and criticizing the system of wartime proselytism, I can't help but think the humble and private Tillman would have disapproved of even a non-fiction movie about his story.
There is a lot of doubt to be had with the documentary medium as truth-teller that doesn't save it from myth-making. Look at Bar-Lev's other works: My Kid communicates a sort of legend of its young artist while Trouble the Water, which the filmmaker co-produced, is one of the biggest hero creations of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. The Tillman Story merely puts Tillman on a different kind of pedestal and celebrates him as a different sort of idol than the military and media had done in the past. Meanwhile, it reminds of so many war film myths that it doesn't completely undermine them -- it matters little that Bar-Lev ended up not including a clip from Saving Private Ryan as he originally intended, because most moviegoers will likely think of it, and not necessarily negatively.
I admire the Tillman family's pursuit for answers and justice, as well as the candidness of those few military men who offered their sides of the story. And I especially respect Marie Tillman, who has apparently declined multiple attempts from Hollywood to acquire rights to her husband's life (Bar-Lev shared one cheesy example of what the scripts she's received are like). Even a film dealing with the controversy might just seem a rehash of either (or both) Courage Under Fire and Wag the Dog, only with a "based on a true story" selling point. But as great as the story is and as great as it is presented in this well-crafted yet over-narrated (by Josh Brolin) documentary, paced to perfection by editor Joshua Altman (We Live in Public), I just can't entirely say it's a better idea than the alternative.