Movie Review: The Tillman Story (2010)

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Pat (left) and Kevin Tillman in The Tillman Story
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

Amir Bar-Lev’s excellent documentary, The Tillman Story, centers on Pat Tillman, an ex-pro football player that gave up millions in the NFL to join the Army Rangers in 2002 and died due to friendly fire in 2004 in Afghanistan. That, of course, is a drastic over-simplification of the situation.

The Tillman Story shines a light on how the government originally lied about the details surrounding Tillman’s death, massaged the truth once it became known and did everything they could to turn Tillman’s patriotism into military propaganda. The saddest part of it all is you won’t be shocked to hear of the government’s deceit.

The one criticism of The Tillman Story that’s sure to come up before some see a single frame will be to disparage the film because it appears the only reason we’re even discussing Tillman is because he was a football player. “He’s not the only soldier that died serving his country!” they’ll shout. And they’re right. And in a matter of speaking, it’s true. The only reason we’re talking about Pat Tillman is because he was a pro football player, but that’s exactly the point of this story because such lies would have never been made up otherwise.

Tillman refused to give a single interview following his decision to enlist, requesting he be treated just like any other citizen. It was, in fact, the media and more importantly the government that used Tillman’s athletic celebrity for ratings and political gain. His celebrity is the reason a false story was created and used at his memorial service, a memorial service he explicitly did not want. His celebrity is the reason the government didn’t want it getting out to the public he died as a result of what appears to have been negligent fratricide.

And while I say the lengths the government will go to sell and cover-up their bogus story is not at all surprising, what is surprising is the reason this film even exists and why The Tillman Story must be told.

While her son was being dubbed a hero and awarded with a Silver Star, Pat Tillman’s mother, Dannie did everything she could to get to the truth. She launched her own investigation and while the government hoped she would just go away they didn’t know the measure of her resolve.

Dannie Tillman fought to ensure her son’s life and death wasn’t used as a talking point or a way to get more people to enlist under false pretenses. The notoriety and banners of heroism weren’t important to her or any of the other members of the Tillman family. In one instance Pat’s father, Patrick Tillman Sr., asks if Pat was killed by friendly fire and not saving fellow soldiers why exactly was he given the Silver Star?

The Tillman Story is an exploration into yet another government cover-up just as much, if not more, that it is about Pat Tillman. He was merely the spark that lit the fire. This isn’t to say, however, his life story doesn’t have an effect on you as the viewer.

Pat Tillman was courageous and his story is equally sad as it is inspiring as presented here. Certainly, with any documentary of this sort, it’s important to take a step back and get a general lay of the land. But as it stands I don’t question an ounce of the legitimacy of The Tillman Story.

This is a family with no reason to lie. They’re simply a family yet to be afforded the chance to properly grieve. Their son heroically enlisted and died for his country only to be used by its leaders. Who can blame the Tillman’s for wanting to set the story straight, and I can only hope you’ll take a moment to listen.

GRADE: B+