I Never See War Movies. I Saw This One.
A review of The Tillman Story, directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
Pat had enlisted in the Army Rangers against Dannie's wishes, and she learned little about the military during his service. But after Pat's death, Dannie threw herself into the task of understanding Army culture and practices to piece together what had happened to her son. She spent endless hours on the phone, studied ballistics, and taught herself to decode the hieroglyphics of Army documents handed over to appease her, including six binders of redacted investigative interviews, maps, and reports.
At first, Dannie is lost in this alien universe, lacking the language or knowledge of its customs. I can relate to this. As a onetime outsider to the military, I have often been stymied by its ways. Its indecipherable lexicon induces panic attacks in this erstwhile English major. In the early days of my marriage, for example, when I was trying to find my way to my husband's office on our American military base in Japan, helpful sailors offered me a series of acronyms: "Is he at NAVFAC? NAVCOMTELSTA? COMFAIRWESTPAC?" I could barely understand the question, much less proffer a coherent reply. In the end, a kind soul simply showed me photos of emblems for the local squadrons, and I pointed to the patch that my husband wore on his flight suit.
Dannie also finds her way with aid from others. She connects with a larger community of military families, chiefly a retired Special Forces soldier and military blogger named Stan Goff, who helps her fill in the holes of the redacted documents. As she reconstructs the route of Pat's final convoy through an Afghan canyon and speaks to eyewitnesses to his death, she becomes ever more determined to correct the narrative for Pat's sake. "If they knew anything about my son, they wouldn't have done what they did," she insists.
Pat Tillman is a fully realized character, both man and soldier, in this documentary. He's a fan of Emerson and Chomsky, an atheist who was discovered reading the Book of Mormon, and a champion of the underdog who "scooped up" and looked after an inexperienced, frail private in his unit. He tells a lovely story of his mother coming in "dead last" in the San Francisco marathon, and how that taught him the lesson of persistence. Other people speak about him of in the past tense, but the video footage of his football days is so recent that its immediacy is startling. Because his mischievous glance and wry smile continually cause the viewer to wonder what he's really thinking, it's hard to remember he died six years ago. Then again, it's hard to believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still going on, and that some stages, like the one recounted in this film, are distant enough to be one generation's history.
Like Dannie Tillman, I'm nervous when I hear the word "hero." Overuse can strip it of meaning, or bring comfort where discomfort would ultimately serve a greater purpose. More than anything I've seen, The Tillman Story delves into these nuances and complications. Throughout the film, Dannie is revealed as a fierce seeker of the truth, recounting how hard she worked during her boys' upbringing to instill that value in them. So it makes sense when she insists that lying about Pat's death diminishes his true heroism, and that he is no less a hero for having fallen victim to U.S. Army soldiers instead of the Taliban.
Army officials don't dispute this, even after they concede publicly that Pat was a victim of fratricide. Still, in the closing scene of the documentary, Dannie intimates that she feels like a failure because no one was formally held accountable for the cover-up. "I don't think there's much more that I can do," she says, resigned to the outcome. "Now it's just about moving on, and bringing [Pat] with us." If war movies are indeed training exercises, I'll take my lessons from Dannie Tillman.
Alison Buckholtz is the author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin 2009), which will be released in paperback this spring with a new afterword and reader's guide.
Illustration by Nina Frenkel.