The Tillman Story (Amir Bar-Lev, 2010)
What a pleasant surprise!
What a horrible way to start this review. This is an infuriating film.
I had heard nothing about this film, but it gave me a lot to think about. The Tillman Story retells Pat Tillman’s decision to abandon his multimillion-dollar football contract in order to serve in the US Army in Afghanistan in 2002. Already a national football star, Tillman’s decision attracted a fair amount of press, but only in his death did he become a household name. The film examines how Tillman’s death was taken by the government and spun into a pro-war media spectacle. Tillman was depicted as an American hero, who died in an intense firefight with the opposition, when in reality he died by friendly fire.
The Tillman Story is very much a post-Michael Moore documentary. Audiences have grown to be wary of documentaries with a master of ceremonies and are much more open to a “figure it out yourself” narrative. Do not misunderstand, the information is prescriptive and Josh Brolin’s narration is very sympathetic, but it is tempered with self-explanatory footage–e.g. Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials pleading ignorance in front of the supreme court (shameful footage indeed). I was consistently surprised with the acuteness of Bar-Lev’s eye; he effortlessly dances between the hilarious and the truly tragic aspects of this young man’s death with such speed that I could only keep up by crying and laughing at the same time.
What struck me about this film is how quickly an idea can consume a person. Pat Tillman did not believe in god or want a military burial, yet the famous politicians attending his high-profile military funeral all solemnly proclaimed how Tillman was now up in heaven and at peace with god. Following this, one of his younger brothers speaks (skip to 7:25):
He’s fucking dead. I still can’t shake this clip. It kicked me in the stomach in the theater and I can’t even watch it now. Consider sitting through your loved one’s funeral as people who never knew him drone on about the country and the glory of war (Tillman is later recounted watching the bombing of Baghdad and saying. “This war is so fucking illegal.”)–I was shaking in my seat. To feel such a visceral reaction is rare for me, but the blatant truth in some of the footage is undeniable and simply presented. I never thought I would describe any documentary as “true”, but The Tillman Story is remarkable.
After the film finished, a woman in the back was loudly chatting with her friends: “You know who really upsets me is Donald Rumsfeld. If I could just shoot anybody in the head, it’d be him.” Really? Really. Films like this leave me feeling helpless because, while a lot of information is presented, no solutions are even hinted at. This only enrages the viewer and equips her with enough sound bites to keep up conversation at her monthly olive-tasting and short fiction club. If you ask about it, she’ll tell you to go see the film instead of running for office. Information is only useful in concert with action, and I’m alarmed by how satisfying and easy it is to take in information without any consequence for inaction. How does one deal with this barrage of corruption and misinformation?
I, for one, postponed my political campaign and went to see two more films.