On Aug. 22, a few days before President Obama marked the end of combat by U.S. forces in Iraq on August 31, “The Tillman Story” opened in four theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Last January it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and it played during the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. Still, for the travesty of how this pro football player died and the cover up that followed, I expected more interest; more outrage. More sorrow. More movie screens.
Pat Tillman, the eldest of the three sons of Dannie and Patrick, joined the army in 2002 with his brother Kevin following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. He never explicitly said why he joined up, preferring to keep his motives private, but after Tillman’s death, heroic patriotism was attributed to him. General Stanley McChrystal approved him for the Silver Star; he also received a Purple Heart.
There is an email from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when he was notified that Tillman had enlisted, saying that someone should keep an eye on Tillman. He could be useful, suggesting that his sports star status could be used for the war effort.
Jon Krakauer’s 2009 best-selling book, “Where Men Win Glory: the Odyssey of Pat Tillman” lays out what happened on April 22, 2004. But director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary tells the story in about 90 minutes with utter, devastating clarity.
Pat Tillman was killed by men from his own unit, a cover up was ordered, Dannie Tillman’s efforts made the army reveal the truth eventually, and a strongly worded letter from Patrick Tillman (marked by the “f” word, a catch phrase of the Tillman males), elicited a mockery of a Congressional investigation and hearings. It took years.
The film includes Pat Tillman’s service in Iraq; in fact his unit stayed alert all night April 1, 2003 waiting to “rescue” Pvt. Jessica Lynch from being held in an enemy hospital. Soldiers could have walked in at any time and rescued Lynch but they had to wait for a film crew to document the rescue. An eerie portent to Tillman’s own fate at the hands of friendly fire and the military’s efforts at propaganda; lies to prop up support for war.
Dannie Tillman admits defeat after the final congressional hearings; there was nothing left to be done because the military scapegoated the blame for the misinformation given the family on a recently retired general. Then all the generals who testified, as well as Rumsfeld, said that they couldn’t even recall when they learned of Pat’s death. The Tillman family was willing to forgive the trigger-happy men of Tillman’s unit; they even had sympathy for them. But the military establishment’s hubris and slipshod self-serving, is unforgiveable.
What the Tillman’s could do, however, was make a movie.
“The Tillman Story” enters the subgenre of films about the U.S. led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are not popular films, but they are intrinsically essential to our understanding of citizenship and discipleship in the modern world. If a mother’s sorrow, a father’s anger, a brother’s loss, cannot reach us, what will?
The prophets of Hollywood have told us over and over again what is being done in our name. We cannot say we didn’t know. We simply chose to look the other way.
I think I would have liked Pat Tillman. Sure, you may say, he was a football star! No, he was an intellectual who liked Chomsky and was respectful of all religions though he did not profess faith himself. He was a young man who followed the impulse to be generous, and the military and U.S. government’s actions did not diminish this young man; they have diminished our country.
I felt much sorrow at the end of “The Tillman Story”. I still feel outrage. I cannot do much, either. But I can write a film review.