Sony // 2010 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // February 5th, 2011
I'm Pat F***in' Tillman!
In 2002, Pat Tillman, a standout defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, left his wife, his family, and his multi-million dollar contract to join up with the Army Rangers. Many found the decision heroic and many more were baffled. Myself, as a classic Arizona State Sun Devils hater, I found the action to be typical grandstanding from Tillman, an attitude that defined his style of play. But I was wrong; Tillman wanted to be treated like a normal soldier and, impossible as that may have sounded, he actually managed to stay out of the papers. That is, until one fateful night in 2004, while on a convoy with his fellow Rangers, he was shot in the head and killed.
This tragic consequence of war, because of Tillman's name, quickly became national headlines. The aftermath of stories and disinformation regarding the circumstances, however, became an embarrassment for our military and an obvious display of propaganda designed to fuel nationalistic goals. If only the Tillman family was satisfied with a twenty-one gun salute, everything would have been fine. But they had to go asking questions, wanting answers, and ruining everything. It is their undying search for the truth that director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) shows us in The Tillman Story. Through interviews with the family, fellow soldiers, and one very astute ex-soldier/blogger, we get both a picture of the extremely complicated Pat Tillman as well as a study of the surprisingly effective means that the government uses the media to manipulate the viewpoints of the public.
Take, for instance, the government's ban on images of the coffins of dead soldiers. Ostensibly enacted to give families time to grieve, it came in after Vietnam, where such images greatly increased anti-war fervor. When we don't see the effects of war on real people, we don't consider the consequences of our nation's actions. That's the largest benefit for watching The Tillman Story. Its harsh viewpoint on the war in general aside, Bar-Lev does not hesitate to show the hard truths about our conflicts in the Middle East. Fortunately, he eschews rhetoric for evidence (important in the fight against propaganda); giving us first hand accounts, video footage, and expert testimony to get from the original story of "the Taliban killed our fallen hero" to "mowed down by friendly fire in an orgy of blood lust." Maybe those words are a little strong, and I don't exactly want the soldiers themselves brought to trial, but I do think it is important to understand the truth, no matter how damaging or painful that may be. It's still better to know.
Regardless of how you feel about their mouthy views, you've got to hand it to the Tillman family for their perseverance. When they requested the documentation surrounding the inquiry on Pat's death, the government tried to overwhelm them in minutiae, but drown they did not. With the help of Stan Goff, who after five separate tours in multiple arms of the Special Forces, left the service and started blogging his experiences, they learned to swim. After learning the jargon, they were able to move through mountains of paperwork to connect the redacted dots to figure out the truth of what happened to Pat.
It's a solid story and Bar-Lev tells it well. It's uncomplicated, alternating between archival footage and interviews, with some occasional narration. I followed these headlines fairly closely at the time, so the revelations of the film aren't terribly shocking to me, but he paints the picture well. One detail I did not know -- that his brother Kevin, who signed up with Pat, and their best friend in the service had to fly alone with the coffin on a massive cargo plane from Iraq to the U.S. -- is truly morbid for me, a chilling image of loneliness I won't soon forget.
Sony delivers a solid package for The Tillman Story that is light on extras but technically sound. The film is made up of much archival material, so the image is understandably mixed. All the new footage looks great, while much of the older footage, both in football and the war, is very spotty. The sound mix is fine; the surround channels have essentially nothing to do, but I have nothing to complain about there. I do on the extras front, however. I could think of all kinds of fantastic supplements to this story: copies of the relevant documents, footage from the walkthrough of the circumstances (we see a few seconds of it in the film), a timeline of events, or additional interviews, of which I'm sure they had mountains. All we get, though, is a commentary from the director. It's fine, Bar-Lev gives further background on the story and it is mostly valuable, but that's it. This is a very complex situation, the more that could have been done, the better.
There are people on both sides of the political fence who have used the death of Pat Tillman as a political hammer. None of that helps the family of the victim get over the tragedy, however, and political hammers are a pretty tired tool these days. The Tillman Story presents evidence, though, a quality sorely lacking in our political discourse today. For that, I am grateful.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site