Pat Tillman had recently married his high school sweetheart and was a rising NFL star when he famously put his professional sports career on hold to serve three tours with the Army rangers (two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan). During an incident that was that was first described as a shootout with enemy combatants but weeks later re-classified as a ‘friendly fire’ mishap he died after receiving multiple gunshots to his body and head. The details of his death grew even murkier as the Tillman family (along with a retired green beret turned private investigator who acted as a de facto fixer for navigating the language and culture of ground combat infantry) sifted through thousands of documents about their son’s death. Despite no solid explanation for how or why their son died, the Tillman family was left helpless and confused as the Bush administration turned the story of his short life into a promotional device trumpeting the war efforts. Old interview footage was re-purposed to morph Tillman’s obvious patriotism into blank jingoism and military officials attempted to strong-arm his widow into overriding Tillman’s specific requests that there be no military involvement with his funeral arrangements. Despite the clarity of focus within the Executive branch’s and military’s public relations campaigns, the Tillmans’ frustrations finally exploded in the form of a letter penned by Tillman’s father telling top Army brass to go fuck themselves -- which one might be surprised to learn -- is considered a threat and automatically triggers an official investigation, in this case first with the Army, then the FBI and finally by Congress.
Perhaps equally as interesting as the particulars of the Tillman family’s struggle for answers is the drastically changing cultural context it exists in and how this film will speak to audiences as the wars in the Middle East have lost their nationalistic sparkle. Similar to Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure, The Tillman Story demonstrates the new phenomenon of military and governmental sloppiness, cover ups and craven publicity stunts being constantly undermined by the new generation of ground-level soldiers’ endless ability and desire to self-document the minutia of their daily routines. But while Standard Operating Procedure was largely ignored by audiences and nitpicked by critics, Tillman played Sundance and the Los Angeles Film Festival to sold out crowds, glowing reviews and had a strong opening weekend in New York and Los Angeles despite some controversy over the MPAA’s decision to saddle the film with an R-rating.*
Director Amir Bar-Lev’s previous film My Kid Could Paint That also examined how a family handles having the public image of their child taken away from them and turned into something they can barely stomach. Obviously, the stakes for the Tillmans were much higher but in My Kid Bar-Lev demurred (quite uncomfortably, on-camera) at asking the difficult questions that were the base appeal of his subjects. The Tillmans are happy to embrace an opportunity to give their side of things and air grievances and provide a more fascinating portrait of a family, clear-eyed in the face of monumental government and media interference with their memories, lives and grief.
*Far be it for me to defend the MPAA’s practices or decisions, but the f-word appears in The Pat Tillman Story approximately as many times as the average Apatow film.