Americans were surprised when Patrick Tillman, the NFL's Arizona Cardinal’s linebacker, gave up a lucrative career to join the Army Rangers along with his brother Kevin in 2002. In a post- 9/11 interview, Tillman said the patriotism of his grandfather and other family members inspired him to do the right thing. That decision would become a lifelong heartache for his family when Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. Although Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, The Tillman Story, may make viewers sorrowful, angry and confused, it’s a compelling story that needs to be told.
The first news hitting the airwaves reported that Tillman was a war hero who saved men during an ambush in the Afghanistan Mountains. Buddies who were there received orders from higher ups not to talk to the family or reveal what really happened. From the early hours of notice -- which caused Pat’s mother, Dannie Tillman, to collapse upon seeing two uniformed officers approaching their home -- through the following days, the family tried to deal with the heart-wrenching news.
Tillman had clearly checked the box “no military funeral” on the form when he enlisted, and he left a copy with his wife Marie. He never wanted any recognition for joining the military, even declining interviews before going in. Yet because of news reports swirling around about Tillman’s heroic acts as well as proclamations from the President and other officers, a military funeral was inevitable.
While high brass attended in numbers, and comrades who ached to tell the truth sat quietly in the breeze at that news-covered funeral, Tillman’s younger brother Richard had the guts to get up and tell the truth about what he knew his brother would have wanted -- and to call it exactly how he saw it.
And then, a mere five weeks later, more news would deepen the wounds of the Tillman family. After an official investigation, it was determined that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire shot by one of his own. Dannie would not take this news lying down. She pushed, researched, prodded, called congressman after congressman and spent years in getting nowhere. No one seemed to know exactly what happened on that mountain -- but it was obvious the cover-up had begun immediately.
The Department of Defense didn’t order an official investigation until August of 2005, but it would go through another three years of cover-ups and irresponsible actions by many military officials and people in the government. At one point, hoping Dannie would tire of her campaign, the officials delivered to her a box of large notebooks packed with 1000s of pages about the investigation. However, every name of a real person or actual place was blacked out in the reports. But family members -- along with buddies from Tillman’s outfit – were able to fill in most of them. This gave Dannie the ammunition to finally go after specific people and to demand a true account of what happened to her son.
At a second congressional hearing in august of 2007, the focus was on a P4 memo and its recipients, including Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General John Abizaid, General Bryan Brown and General Richard Myers, all who were called to testify. At a final congressional hearing in July of 2008, nothing went as the family had been led to believe. A House and Oversight Committee report stated the investigation was "frustrated by a near universal lack of recall" from Bush administration officials, and that the White House withheld drafts of a speech in which the President discussed Corporal Tillman, claiming the speech would "implicate Executive Branch confidentiality interests."
No matter how the situations unfold in this documentary narrated by Josh Brolin, director Bar-Lev maintains there are no simple answers. “I hope that whatever conclusions anyone takes from this film, they’ll also prod and question those same conclusions,” he said. “If audiences walk away wondering how such a thing could have happened, they’re in good company. It remains a mystery to anyone who really looks into it. The life and death of Pat Tillman challenges us to see the world differently.”
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” for language.)
Review also posted at www.reviewexpress.com.