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The Legend of Pat Tillman: Deconstructing a Military Myth

By Sara Vizcarrondo

Amir Bar-Lev, director of The Tillman Story, was no great insider to his subject, post-NFL athlete and US Corporal Patrick Tillman, when he began making his film. "I knew there were myths around his death," Bar-Lev says, "but what began to intrigue me was when we found out there were equally as many myths about his life."

Bar-Lev's last film, My Kid Could Paint That, is about a could-be toddler art-prodigy with a curiously unsuccessful painter-father. As My Kid also traffics in themes of family and misrepresentation, the director "sheepishly handed over a copy of the film [to the Tillman family] as an example of my work. I had to tell them, ‘Unless Pat's dad was secretly playing football for him...'"

Pat Tillman was a popular professional football player before deciding to enlist. A tall and imposing 25-year-old, Tillman was on his second tour when he was pronounced dead. As the news had brought such attention to this man who left a multi-million-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to fight for his country, his death was a project for careful PR. Military publicity transformed this already principled and courageous figure into a hero--and they did this by rewriting the details of his death. Armed with a massive box of records, Dannie Tillman, Pat's mother, uncovered a considerable revision of history. Pat, the victim of friendly fire, was killed during an awkwardly plotted expedition by his own troops, many of whom reported they were just eager to be in a firefight. Pat Tillman was a public figure because of his career, and his decision to enlist put him in the public eye for new reasons, so it's easy to see why his loss, a national tragedy by its very nature, could not be reported as an accident besot with incompetence.


Pat Tillman (left) and his brother Kevin, from Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story. Photo: Donald Lee/The Weinstein Co.



The Tillman Story features an incredible amount of report footage, the most impressive of which was footage that may or may not have been taken from the expedition during which Tillman was killed. This footage, which was captured from a vehicle, is disarmingly unspecific; neither people nor distinguishing traits of landscape appear, so what we see, which might otherwise present us with all the answers we need, is actually no evidence at all--there is no answer in the image.

 "Pat's last words were ‘I'm Pat Fucking Tillman,'" notes Bar-Lev. "On one level he was saying, ‘I'm your platoon-mate,' trying to indicate to the soldiers shooting at him from 40 meters away for 15 minutes. In retrospect, there's a deep irony. Only minutes after he died, people would begin turning him into something he wasn't, so his last words sound like a call from the dead, from a guy saying, ‘I'm just who I am, don't make me something I'm not'--which is exactly what happened."

It's easy to find the situation confusing; after all, this homegrown success story leaves a lucrative NFL contract to fight in Afghanistan. Just based on that choice, he sounds like a hero in the old guard. However, as Bar-Lev points out, "He wasn't, as they described him, ‘above all, principled'; he wasn't a paragon of moral certitude; he was curious and tried to see things from every possible point of view." And, in a way, that desire to see from many vantage points is what Bar-Lev is trying to return to his subject--a man who took risks and won games like the best leaders of legend, but was flattened into a fake icon and exploited by national media. The curious part of this dehumanizing is distinguishing the culprits from the messengers. Was it a failure of intelligence or a failure of reporting? Regardless, those in charge of the information weren't going to help.

Tillman's mother was tireless. A short period after his death, the Army relinquished its intelligence on the incident to her. Presented with thousands of pages about a son's death, most parents would throw up their hands, but she dug through the material and found the roots of what amounted to a government cover-up. Forcing an opportunity to get answers from Congress, the family took part in a hearing. Confronting the generals in charge would seem like a promising conclusion to a battle with injustice and false impression, but it wasn't. "When audiences see the scene in the congressional room, they're vocally angry, yelling at the screen, because it's so patently obvious [what's happening]," Bar-Lev notes. "But that's not at all how it was reported; those generals gave this kind of Keystone Kops, self-flagellating, disingenuous apology--‘Gee, we're sorry we screwed this thing up'-- and it was reported as ‘Military Apologizes to The Tillmans.' We all engage in sound bites, but the treatment of Tillman to this point flattens him, shaving off sides of his personality to conform to a Hollywood cookie-cutter [ideal]."

An illuminating outtake in the film shows a congressman trying to calm Dannie Tillman at the hearing. "She asked a basic question, and one of these patronizing lieutenants said, ‘Ma'am, this was like the first scene in Saving Private Ryan.' What a great post-modern moment! Everyone knows Hollywood learns about warfare from the military--but the military learns about soldiering from Hollywood. It goes back through this hall of mirrors to the beginning of time; it's a chicken-and-egg thing. You have to believe these 19-year-old kids from Pat's platoon, the ones who shot on his position with these powerful and somewhat fun weapons, were learning how to shoot them partially from training and partially from films."

In the process of reviewing Tillman, Bar-Lev describes a different model of heroism; he considers this a necessity, given the actions of his subject and those of the Tillman family. "I hope the story of Tillman tells us that heroism and humanity are not contradictory and heroism is complex," he maintains. "‘Hero' is a problematic word that says a lot more about the people using it than the person they're speaking about."

On the pitfalls of representing a subject that's so extensively about misrepresentation, Bar-Lev observes, "There may not be such thing as ‘Truth.' but there is definitely such thing as a bullshit-lie, and that's between you and your footage. Your cutting is your opinion."


Amir Bar-Lev, dirtector, The Tillman Story. Photo: The Weinstein Co.



The Tillman Story begins at a football field during a ceremony to honor Tillman and his family. The first we see of him is in direct address as he's shooting the footage on which his performance statistics will be overlaid for TV broadcast. This footage, without the benefit of stats to give the eerie piece context, just shows Tillman looking forward, silent, waiting for the cameraman to let him leave. He looks at the camera in pregnant silence, and we don't know why. "He just staring at you for an uncomfortable amount of time, and anytime you're looking at an uncomfortably long silence of a person in front of you, you impose your own narrative," Bar-Lev notes. "And that's what we've been doing to Pat Tillman from the moment he enlisted. He's never had a chance to speak for himself; he's been subject to one narrative or another. At the end of the film, you see that kind of uncomfortably alive footage fossilized into a statue. Our film is bookended by the living Pat and its antipode that's not moving."

The statue of Tillman, which stands in front of the University of Phoenix Stadium at the newly titled Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza, captures a famous image of Tillman in motion--it's a bronze re-creation of the Sports Illustrated cover shot of Tillman the day he helped the Cardinals win a game against the Dallas Cowboys. "We called that the Han Solo moment," Bar-Lev explains. "You remember, when he was dipped in the vat of--Wow, dipped into that vat of something we don't have on this planet!"

The Tillman Story premieres in theaters August 20 through The Weinstein Company.

Sara Vizcarrando is a film journalist writing and living in San Francisco, Calif.