LITTLE ROCK — At the very beginning of Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, Mary Tillman, the bereaved mother of the former professional football player turned Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, states it plainly: “What they saidhappened, didn’t happen. They made up a story.”
There seems no doubt they did just that. The Army told Mary Tillman that her son died a hero’s death, charging up a hill into Taliban fire. That was a lie, and Armyauthorities knew - or should have known - that right from the beginning. Tillman’s death was some species of terrible accident, one of those random, senseless things that happen under cover of war’s fog. He was killed by friendly fire, a fact some of his fellow Army Rangers took immediate steps to try and cover up.
This lie, and the subsequent attempt to turn the Tillman tragedy into a story of noble sacrifice useful to the Army, allows Bar-Lev a way into what might have been a deeply interesting investigation of the nature of propaganda and why we fight. It ends up being something less, more a brief for the justified outrage of a bereft family (and something of a propaganda film itself) but it at least grazes a couple of larger issues. A lot of critics have talked about how the film left them outraged, butit just made me sad.
Not because what the Army did was especially outrageous; I’m pretty sure battlefield deaths are mythologized all the time. Families don’t want - and maybe even don’t need - to hear how their loved ones died senselessly, because someone panicked or proved incompetent. They want the gung-ho glory run, capped by the clean and painless obliteration of a bullet through the heart. No, ma’am, he died instantly. He didn’t feel a thing. He saved his buddies’ lives.
We probably ought to expect the military to attempt to obscure certain unpleasant realities about war, for if enough people realized the truth about war the practice might fall into disfavor. We might be less convinced that war can be justified.
So while telling the “true” story of Pat Tillman’s death might be a good thing - for cruel truth always trumps soothing lies - I’m less inclined to be affronted by the military’s actions than the movie wants me to be. The way Tillman died does nothing to denigrate the enormous sacrifice he took when he chose to enlist in the Army rather than continue a professional football career that paid him millions of dollars a year. Tillman was apparently a good soldier too - whichmakes me wonder just a little whether he might not have endorsed a lie meant to spare the feelings of his family.
To me it’s instructive that his brother Kevin, who enlisted along with Pat, was the only member of the Tillman family who wouldn’t sit for an interview with the filmmaker. I would like to know how he receives this film, whether he thinks it a proper corrective or just another way of spinning what - had his brother not been a gifted athlete - would have been just another one of thousands of private tragedies.
It’s also hard for me to get past a certain suspicion I have of Bar-Lev’s methods and assumptions. He seems too alert to the possibilities of grand conspiracies. And, as was the case in his similarly interesting yet ultimately frustrating feature My Kid Could Paint That, he seems quick to foreclose on the possibilities of more benign (if not exactly“innocent”) explanations that fall short of sinister machinations from the top down.
Yes, the Tillmans have a right to their anger and are owed more by their government. But I’m not sure that Pat Tillman’s case is genuinely exceptional. Had he been a 19-year-old with a GED who’d joined the Army as a regrouping maneuver rather than in a fit of patriotic thrall, would his death have been more accurately reported?
Please understand the point here. However he died, Tillman followed his conscience and sense of duty. His sacrifice is made no less profound by the circumstances in which he died - the risks of war are such that courage and preparedness cannot guarantee safety.
There is a legitimate debate about the efficacy of our military operations of the past decade. But only the very naive could take The Tillman Story as revelatory. It’s not the way they tried to make one soldier’s death seem romantic that’s the real problem. It’s that, for us, war has always been the stuff of glory. It’s that we - not they - made up a story.