In death, Pat Tillman received more hype than both he wanted and his life choices deserved. Thus, The Tillman Story exists in an uncomfortable gray area in which his saga—both his decision to forgo his NFL career to enlist and serve, and the subsequent lies concocted and promoted by the government about the events surrounding his demise on April 22, 2004 in rocky Afghanistan—is at once respectfully dealt with and bestowed with a magnitude it doesn’t quite warrant. To be clear, Tillman’s selfless service for country was admirable in and of itself, and in certain respects even more so because, unlike the greedy self-interest that often characterizes modern athletes, he was willingly giving up so much. Yet as Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary cogently articulates, Tillman understood that he was merely one of many who, in the aftermath of 9/11, felt a call to duty, regardless of the sacrifices it entailed. Consequently, those portions of Bar-Lev’s latest that openly lionize Tillman (as a kid, a man, a son, a husband) flirt with inappropriateness, given how they aim to honor him with the very sort of “he was a great guy” hero-worship that the film makes plain Tillman shunned at every turn.
By all anecdotal accounts from friends, family, and comrades, Tillman was smart, generous, humble, and imminently likeable, a thoughtful Mack truck of a man who, once overseas, found himself increasingly opposed, ideologically and operationally, to the tasks he now had to execute. Bar-Lev wields these fond remembrances as something close to supplementary evidence for his main argument: that the government, by creating first a phony cover-up narrative about Tillman perishing while trying to rescue fallen mates, and then a semi-honest account about his death by friendly fire in a confusing “fog of war,” shamefully used his passing (like it did with Jessica Lynch’s ordeal) as a myth-making opportunity to further sell the war. The Tillman Story is infused with the righteous anger and stunned disbelief of Tillman’s crusading mother and father, who worked tirelessly to receive a full account of the events that led to the loss of their son. It forcefully argues that the government deliberately misled the public about Tillman’s fate in order to foster a stirring fairy tale that would bolster support for their overseas endeavors, a fact that isn’t really in doubt nor is made with grandstanding narration or aesthetic flash—save for some distracting dramatic-reenactment insert shots.
Bar-Lev’s doc fundamentally functions as a candid attempt by the Tillman family to rescue their son’s identity and legacy, to accurately recount who he was versus the symbol created by Donald Rumsfeld and a complicit media. It’s a goal successfully achieved by this investigation-cum-reclamation-project, which—in detailing Tillman’s parents’ efforts to both prod those in power for more than tidy answers to their questions, as well as to rebuff the military’s efforts to advance bogus fictions—builds suitable outrage, culminating in a congressional hearing in which Rumsfeld and his generals disgracefully hem and haw their way out of saying anything approaching the truth. That the film thinks Tillman’s noble character somehow makes the government’s deception worse seems debatable, since the propagandistic co-option of Tillman’s life would be disgraceful even if, in reality, the footballer-turned-soldier had been a less endearing, commendable figure. Still, if he sometimes overdoes the idolization in certain respects, Bar-Lev shrewdly underplays his hand in others. And to his film’s ultimate credit, it refuses to underline the fact that, at heart, the story of Tillman’s death by reckless comrade gunfire and his subsequent spurious elevation into Captain America serves as a microcosm of the prior administration’s handling of its wars, in which disingenuously happy faces were slapped on their own military mistakes.