The Tillman Story

For one last time before the fine arts season goes into full swing -- by one measure or another, upon next week's opening night of the Washington National Opera -- here is yet another meditation on cinema, even farther removed from the classical tradition of performing arts but, as documentary (a discipline dear to me), vital still to the universe of creative expression as surely as Wiseman went to the heart of balletThe Tillman Story opens today in theatrical release to a broader Washington audience than its first appearance in June closing out SILVERDOCS at the local branch of the American Film Institute.  In a sense, that festival screening de-marked the end of a spotless run inside the festival circuit, met with suspiciously unanimous praise despite the narrative's potentially divisive nature.  Yet:  it is not crudely simplistic -- or "divisive," for that matter -- for anyone to approximate that documentary filmmaker peers and festival screening audiences are somewhere on the political spectrum as solidly to the left as the iPhone 4 drops calls.  (Nerd humor.)  The broader distribution of this film incurs the stricter scrutiny of a more diverse audience, just as surely as we may admit that middle America has cultivated many more soldiers in proportion against those who may hail from inside the Beltway.  On the other hand, documentary films more than ever fail as a multiplex exhibition medium:  with the ubiquity of reality television and 1,000-channel line-ups, it takes Michael Moore's vaudeville antics for the vocal majority to justify choosing the genre over make-believe acts of cynical entertainment (running the gamut from Eat, Pray, Love to Avatar).  So be it.  And if the audience for this film only marginally enlarges its diversity in theatrical release, what will the reviews say?

So far, you can Google until "I'm feeling lucky" turns to "I'm feeling owned" and you won't find a single twitch from any established media (save for the New York Post, which is a tabloid I stay as far away from as Fox News on the boob tube).  It is this unanimity, rather than the film's own harrowing narrative, that bummed me out to such an extent that I question whether creative artists (the very soul of our society) value anymore the collective didactic discipline of searching for truth -- in the greatest traditions -- rather than drawing low-art caricatures inside utterly un-epic battles of petty egoes.  That great academic humility, of knowing that there are infinite unknowables, is meant to be the ultimate fruit of higher education.  Anything less is tantamount to being that insufferable part of the audience who wants to let you know how the movie will end, instead of watching the damn thing, or leaving.

Not only from sheepishness (being such the minority here), but also just to call out the film on its lack of nuance, there is little more to say than all that, before really digging into it.  All the same:  The Tillman Story is about a professional athlete in a sport that many people love, many people are indifferent about, and many people fundamentally dislike for its violence and overwhelming corporate capitalism.  Pat decided to become a soldier instead, but made it very clear that he wanted to go about it low-key and without favor.  Predictably, everyone betrayed this intention (arguably, too, his own family). The rest of the film is about that betrayal.

Pat is deployed, calls the war "fucking illegal" (by one person's account), comes back to the States, and is offered an honorable discharge with the ability to resume a full professional football contract.  Despite (allegedly) having just called the war "fucking illegal," he rejects that offer and returns to war.  In a logistically dangerous canyon, from a split troop caused by a car breakdown, Pat bravely but maybe not (in hindsight) wisely storms up a hill accompanied by an Afghan in Afghan dress, and other rangers accidentally start shooting at the Afghan, presuming he is a Taliban fighter.  Pat emerges from cover, exclaims "I'm fucking Pat Tillman!" and gets shot in the confusion.  (Later, Pat's mother -- in no uncertain terms -- accuses the soldiers of murder, saying that they had a lust to kill.)  The Army hushes the surviving witnesses pending an inevitably long investigation -- surely this takes time during a war that has higher priorities, such as avoiding bullets and bombs -- but the news media takes off with the story (remember, some Americans love football).  Hastily (and wrongly), someone in the military, or a few people in the military, or the entire Federal government in stunning lockstep, withholds the detail that Pat was killed by friendly fire (or as Pat's mom would have it, lustful killing fire) amidst all the world's attention.  It is possible that he/they/everyone on the flowchart adjudged this to be the most graceful way for the family to remember a hero, or it is possible that he/they/everyone behaved like warmongers and negated the truth solely to sustain positive propaganda.  Pat's family wants to know.  I sure would.

At the formal funeral, Pat's youngest brother goes up to the podium in jeans and an undershirt holding a glass of beer, chugs a bit, and says, "Pat isn't with God, he's fucking dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead."  Director Amir Bar-Lev asks if he regrets that years later, and his answer is hell no.

Pat's mother and father continue pursuing the case separately (they are divorced) and Mr. Tillman, a small-town lawyer, writes a letter to the highest levels of government that ends with, "Fuck you."  An Inspector General opens an investigation and concludes that it was inappropriate to withhold the information about Pat's death by friendly fire.  The Tillmans still want confessions from everyone on the flowchart of their minds, and they press on with a bi-partisan Congressional hearing where the military's top brass recite that they cannot remember precise dates and manners that this all went down because they were in the middle of managing a war.  (No less, Pat's wish, to not be treated specially inside his larger call of duty, rings in our ears; or it doesn't.)

One of the soldiers who was closest to Pat, who provides the most insistent narratives and opinions in the film (such as the account of Pat saying the war is "fucking illegal"), refuses to complete his duty and a military tribunal charges him for violating the law.  You might think that his resolve to serve was as fragile as this relative political news blip -- and he does say in the film that he only joined the military simply to get a scholarship.

All of this is in the film.  It is one of the most beloved documentaries of our time, perceived as a slam-dunk invective against our government.  So far.  If it wins Best Documentary at Hollywood's annual celebration of itself, the unanimous like-minded community will leap to its feet, believing that the world has changed.

There are caveats to end with here.  I have deep respect for the men and women who put themselves in harm's way:  even just by enlisting, they outdo everything I've done for my country over a lifetime.  I am grateful to Pat Tillman and his family in this regard, unqualified.  And one more thing:  It is possible to have disagreed with the decision to go to war all along (as I did and still do), yet watch this film and be revolted by its simplistic caricatures, its stunningly agnostic treatment of arrogant assumptions, and most of all, its missed opportunity to dignify Pat Tillman:  as one American hero among thousands of heroes in uniform -- not numbered jerseys.  That's how he wanted to be seen.  Or so I assume.