Given the level of deceit it portrays -- and what it says about the moral underpinnings of the Bush administration's approach to the war in Iraq in general -- it's surprising that The Tillman Story (opening in limited release Friday 8/20/10) doesn't positively set the screen on fire.
And yet that very sense of outrage seems muted in this film by Amir Bar-Lev, whose My Kid Could Paint That also dealt with the conflict between appearance and reality.
Pat Tillman was a scholar and an athlete, a highly paid player in the National Football League. But he was also a patriot, moved by the events of 9/11 to put his career on hold so that he could enlist in the Army and serve his country. He joined the U.S. Army Rangers in 2002, serving in Afghanistan.
When he was killed in combat in 2004, he was hailed as a hero: an American who sacrificed his life fighting an evil enemy on behalf of his country. The Army and the Bush administration couldn't cover him in enough encomiums, giving him a posthumous Silver Star and portraying him as an example of a real American -- unlike those "other" Americans who had resisted the idea of invading Iraq and who didn't support the war on terror, at least as the Bush folks defined it.
Almost at once, however, the rumors began to surface -- but it wasn't until more than a year after his death that the truth came out: Tillman had, in fact, been shot by his own men. And this secret had been not only kept but covered up by military officials up to and including Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to prevent embarrassing the Army and the Bushies and to avoid casting doubt on the illegitimate military mission in Iraq.
The Tillman Story chronicles the struggle of Tillman's family -- from his brother, who was serving with Tillman, to his parents, who battled to find the truth -- to get the real story of what had happened to Tillman. It is their anger that this film channels, though that anger should belong to anyone who was lulled into believing the neocons' version of reality for most of the 21st century's initial decade.
Death by friendly fire is always tragic but it is a fact of war. Accidents happen and people die from them. You take appropriate action, learn from your mistakes and move on.
But, as Watergate and all subsequent scandals have proved, it's rarely the initial mistake that causes the problems -- it's the cover-up. So it is with the Pat Tillman saga. To this day, the Army and the government have yet to apologize to the Tillman family for lying about Tillman's death; wrongdoing has barely been acknowledged, let alone punished.
If you're not familiar with Tillman's history, then The Tillman Story will stoke your anger -- not only at the senseless waste of his life but the government's concerted effort to turn it into a propaganda win, something they also did with the capture of Jessica Lynch, another soldier whose combat actions, as ginned up by the Bush-era Pentagon, did not square with reality.
On the other hand, if you've followed Tillman's case at all, The Tillman Story will be a bit of a letdown: a rehash of familiarly outrageous facts, with little that's new to add to the tale. But we're in the minority, I'm afraid.
Which is what makes The Tillman Story so valuable and necessary. At a moment in time when most people barely pay attention to the news -- and get what little news they receive in prepackaged soundbites from TV (or, worse, from Fox News) -- this will all be a revelation to the mass audience.
Those, of course, are exactly the people who won't go see a film like this, either out of lack of interest or because they've been warned away by right-wing blogs trying to portray the film as some sort of hit job.
Yeah, the truth -- its liberal bias apparently is showing again.