After he died in a canyon in Afghanistan in 2004, football star and Army Ranger Patrick Tillman was saluted by the Bush administration as a war hero who perished while protecting fellow soldiers from attackers. In truth, gunfire from his own platoon killed Tillman, and the government knew it.
The effort waged by Tillman’s family to uncover these realities, hold officials accountable for any wrongdoing, and represent Tillman accurately amid poster-boy distortions is chronicled in the documentary “The Tillman Story,” and it’s gripping viewing.
Via interviews and archival footage, director-cowriter Amir Bar-Lev (“My Kid Can Paint That”) both unravels the tragic mystery surrounding Tillman’s death and presents a bigger-picture look at the heartbreak of war, the ways of the military, and what constitutes true heroism.
Bay Area-bred Arizona Cardinals notable Pat Tillman joined the U.S. Army after 9/11, enlisting with his brother Kevin and becoming the nation’s most famous new G.I. Tillman opposed the Iraq war but refused an early-discharge offer. Others describe him as likable, principled, nonmaterialistic, an atheist, a reader of Chomsky, and (according to a neighbor’s amusing account), a longtime user of the f-word.
Bar-Lev addresses the government’s clear exploitation of Tillman’s death to enhance war support, with media assistance. News reports announce that Tillman died heroically during a Taliban ambush. The military urges the Tillman family to give Tillman a military funeral, despite Tillman having officially declined that option. Tillman receives a Silver Star.
Five weeks later, the army states that Tillman probably died from friendly fire. Tillman’s extraordinary mother, Dannie, scrutinizes a deluge of records. A cover-up becomes evident.
Bar-Lev documents numerous findings indicating that officials knew almost immediately that Tillman was killed by friendly fire and acted to conceal this. Also revealed, and particularly disturbing, is that the friendly fire possibly involved “gross negligence” on the part of the platoon’s revved-up young soldiers.
We learn that Tillman’s platoon friend Russell Baer, who attended Tillman’s memorial in California, was ordered not to tell the Tillmans how he died. Additionally, Tillman’s uniform was burned, and at least one witness says no enemy fighters were present when Tillman was shot. One soldier describes the gunfire as “exciting.”
Congressional-hearing testimony by Donald Rumsfeld and three generals amounts to a collective memory lapse regarding a key memo.
In the end, spots remain fuzzy, but truths are exposed.
There’s lots more, and while Bar-Lev isn’t an ace muckraker, he assembles impressive details into a significant, compelling real-life detective story, character portrait and demonstration of what true patriotism, rather than ignorant flag-waving, means.
Among documentaries about ongoing military conflicts, this ranks with “Restrepo” as tops.
Three and a half stars
With Pat Tillman, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, Richard Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr. and Russell Baer
Written by Amir Bar-Lev, Joe Bini and Mark Monroe
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev
Running time 1 hour 34 minutes