Roger Moore, McClatchy Newspapers, Published December 03 2010
Film succeeds only partly in telling 'The Tillman Story'
“The Tillman Story”
- Fargo Theatre
- Rated R for language
- 94 minutes
- 3 out of 4 stars
Reading Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman,” a full-blooded, layered and complex treatment of the pro-athlete-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, led me to expect something like that portrait from the very-good-not-great documentary “The Tillman Story.”
That Krakauer Tillman was an antsy, impulsive, pumped-up jock who carried around a chip on his shoulder, but also remorse and a strong sense of responsibility, which explains why he quit his pro football career with the Arizona Cardinals and joined the U.S. Army Rangers in the months after 9/11.
That Tillman shimmers through only in moments of the film by Amir Bar-Lev (“Trouble the Water,” “My Kid Could Paint That”).
When his brother recalls that Pat “was a public figure who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind” about the Iraq war, which he found “immoral” and not why he had signed up, or bungling in Afghanistan, where he eventually died, killed by friendly fire, when narrator Josh Brolin notes Tillman’s stoic brand of atheism, his determination to be a “stand-up guy” to one and all, you get a picture of the man behind the myth.
But the movie is much more a procedural about how Tillman died and what his parents went through with the military, which spun Tillman’s sacrifice into a public relations bonanza much the way it had POW Jessica Lynch. That frustration weighs down the film’s latter scenes as we see the buck passed from one general to another, we sense lies from everybody from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his subordinates, and we roll our eyes at a Congressional committee that, as Tillman’s dad put it, didn’t do the homework necessary to trap them in those lies and hold the Bush Administration and U.S. Army’s spin doctors accountable.
Using archival footage – home movies, game films, interviews – and fresh interviews with friends, family and fellow soldiers, Bar-Lev and company have subject after subject use words like “honor” and “commitment” to describe the soldier, “He was a human being” (his mother says) to describe the man. But the film struggles to give life to those words. He is a noble subject for a documentary, but the film keeps Tillman at arm’s length.
What works better is the use of Army efforts to reconstruct what happened the day he died, and Bar-Lev and Tillman’s family’s outrage at how his death was spun into martyrdom by the Bush White House and how the Army tried to discredit their efforts to get to the truth. Hearing a military spokesman blame the Tillmans’ atheism for their being unable to accept their official version of his death “and just move on” will make a lot of people’s blood boil.
“The Fog of War” may explain how the man died, but it does nothing to unravel the cover-up that followed. And it’s a shame that seeing through that same fog kept the filmmakers from fully seeing the interesting part-bully/part philosopher who made these decisions and lived his life with brash gusto and impulsive nobility right up to the moment he died.