"Tillman Story" sad tale of a military cover-up

Former NFL star and U.S. Soldier Pat Tillman is pictured in this June 2003 file photograph. REUTERS/Photography Plus C/O Stealth Media Solutions/Handout

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - An alternate title for this clear-eyed, gut-wrenching documentary might be “The Tillman Cover-up,” since it focuses on the Army’s misrepresentation of facts surrounding the 2004 combat death of Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.

Growing dissatisfaction with current military campaigns could draw on a significant cross-section of viewers for a theatrical release of this first-rate film, which will also make a resonant evergreen title on TV and DVD.

Born in 1976, Patrick Tillman was an all-around athlete from the San Jose, CA area recruited as a linebacker for Arizona State University’s football team who went on to play for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. Not long after starting his very promising career, Tillman left behind professional sports following the September 11 attacks to enlist with the Army Rangers. Although he never publicly discussed his personal motivations, in 2002 he began a three-year tour of duty, along with his brother Kevin. His first posting to Iraq convinced Tillman that the war that he’d volunteered to fight was terribly misguided. His second tour took Tillman to Afghanistan and the front lines of confrontation with Taliban insurgents.

In April 2004, the Army reported that Tillman had been killed in action after saving dozens of comrades from an enemy ambush, an act of bravery that earned him a posthumous Silver Star. Astoundingly, almost nothing about this inspiring account was true, as his family first found out five weeks later following another official announcement. In fact, an investigation had revealed that Tillman was killed by friendly fire as members of his unit shot indiscriminately at him and a couple of other soldiers separated from their unit and believed to be guerrillas.

As Pat’s mother Dannie Tillman sifted through thousands of pages of documents from the inquiry, it became clear that although her son’s death was accidental, the Army’s decision to falsify the record and portray Tillman as a hero who saved other soldiers was a calculated attempt at modern mythmaking. The misrepresentation was only undone by Dannie’s painstaking investigation of the heavily redacted official record and Patrick Tillman Sr.’s accusations of fraud regarding the Defense Department’s inadequate explanations.

Capably narrated by Josh Brolin, Amir Bar-Lev’s penetrating and vital documentary goes beyond tracking the Tillman family’s investigation into Pat’s death to question the motives of commanding officers and higher-ups, including the top Bush administration Gulf War generals of the time, as well as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. News clips, archival footage and interviews with Tillman family members provide perspective on Pat’s life and unfortunate death, along with testimony from fellow soldiers and Stan Goff, a retired special-ops expert who reveals the military’s techniques for managing public perceptions.

Bar-Lev astutely examines not only the combat record, but also many Americans’ penchant for military glorification -- as well as the media’s complicity -- that makes the public susceptible to officially sanctioned propaganda. Even after all the lies were unmasked, not a single active duty solider or Bush administration official was held responsible in Tillman’s death.

Fighting an unpopular war, the Army seized the opportunity to manufacture a contemporary hero, never imagining that the truth was far more important to Tillman’s family than the mythos. Their brave struggle -- and Bar-Lev’s insightful documentary -- are a sobering reminder that civilian vigilance is never misplaced.