Andrew O'Hehir's Review of Sundance screening of Amir Bar-Lev's Eye-opening movie: "The Tillman Story"

The Tillman Story

Just before Sundance, director Amir Bar-Lev changed the title of his documentary from I'm Pat Fucking Tillman, reportedly the last words that the NFL star-turned-Army Ranger said while being gunned down by his own comrades in Afghanistan. But this seemingly nondescript new title has a resonance that becomes clear when you watch Bar-Lev's fascinating account, made with the consent and cooperation of Tillman's family. You see, The Tillman Story isn't just about the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire and the military brass lied about it, and essentially have never stopped lying. It's also about the fact that from the moment of his death, and even before, the former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals star became a mythic, ├╝ber-patriotic hero, the centerpiece of a right-wing, pro-military propaganda fable. He was never allowed to be who he was, a surprising, curious, and even eccentric individual who didn't fit the mold of either football player or gung-ho soldier.
Tillman returned from a tour of duty in Iraq convinced that the war there was both ill-advised and illegal; he reportedly had read essays about American foreign policy by Noam Chomsky and expressed an interest in meeting him. But as Bar-Lev's film makes clear, it isn't fair for the left to try to steal Tillman back and make him into its own hero figure. He joined the military in the first place, it appears, out of a genuine belief in patriotic self-sacrifice (although he never discussed the decision in public), and reading Chomsky was part of Tillman's wide-ranging self-education, which also included Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Book of Mormon. (He was personally an atheist, but had an almost academic interest in religion.) In this funny, profane and profoundly sad film, Bar-Lev depicts Tillman and his similarly unconventional parents and brothers as belonging to a vanishing species: Americans who hew to no ideological standard, and who actually think for themselves.


OK, I admit it -- I bought the government-created story of Pat Tillman, but not the way they intended. They wanted us to think of him as a gung-ho superstar. To me, all that beret-headed photo made me think was that he was an officious Pain-in-the-Ass self-aggrandizing Superstar Wannabe, the kind of insufferable asshole we used to call a "Bozo Lifer" back in the day.  But apparently, in reality, he was an extraordinary man in the most positive sense --  the kind of guy I would have liked to know, and would have felt privileged to be accepted as his friend -- the kind of man Mr O'Hehir defines in the last sentence of his review. 


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