An extraordinary convergence occurs about halfway through Amir Bar-Lev's infuriating, heartbreaking account of the life, death, and afterlife of NFL star turned problematic war hero Pat Tillman. An Army Ranger assigned to Baghdad in April 2003, near the end of "Shock and Awe," he and his unit are on hold for a secret mission. They are part of a team assigned to rescue Private Jessica Lynch, a soldier who, according to official dispatches, has fought the enemy to her last bullet, has been wounded, and is being held prisoner and tortured by the Iraqis. Meanwhile, the operation is delayed as they wait for a camera crew to show up.
As it turned out, almost none of the Lynch tale was true. It was, as one of those interviewed in the film puts it, a "movie production" to sell the war.
The Tillman Story | Directed by Amir Bar-Lev | Written by Amir Bar-Lev, Joe Bini, and Mark Monroe | with Pat Tillman, Dannie Tillman, Richard Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr., Marie Tillman, Russell Baer, Bryan O’Neal, And Stan Goff | Weinstein | 94 minutes
READ:Peter Keough interviews Amir Bar-Lev
A little over a year later, Tillman, now deployed in Afghanistan, would be the star of a similar scenario. Already a Bush Administration asset after quitting his lucrative career as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country, Tillman would prove even more valuable when he was killed in action. The Army spun his death into a saga of Hollywood valor, the family got a Silver Star, football jerseys were retired, the president delivered a homily.
The problem was that the family weren't buying it.
Cracks in the official version of things first appeared at a memorial service. In an electrifying piece of footage, Tillman's younger brother, Richard, takes the podium after Maria Shriver has delivered platitudes about Pat being "home" and "safe." Nursing a Guinness, midway between tears and laughter, Richard scoffs at notions of Heaven and says, "Thanks, but Pat didn't believe any of that. He's fucking dead."
And when he was alive, he wasn't any easier to pigeonhole. Despite his almost trite good looks and gridiron charisma, Tillman was no jock. He was deep, a reader of Emerson and Noam Chomsky. His motives for enlisting in the military were, at his own insistence, never disclosed, but they were probably more existential than patriotic.
What's more, his mother, Dannie, was no placid housewife. Suspicious of the Pentagon's hagiography, she set out to learn the truth, a crusade that would involve her and the rest of the Tillman family for years.
What exactly that truth might be is still murky, and lacking sensational revelations or an innovative style, Bar-Lev's film is no Thin Blue Line. A conventional documentary with talking heads and archival footage, it frustrates in its lack of clarity as it depicts the hard facts of Tillman's fatal mission. True, the Army has done its best to obfuscate the details, and the eyewitness accounts conflict, but couldn't Bar-Lev have held that chart of the positions of the participants long enough for us to get a better grasp of the logistics of the shoot-out?