I Never See War Movies. I Saw This One.
A review of The Tillman Story, directed by Amir Bar-Lev.
I have a rule: No war movies. Or TV shows or HBO specials or even the nightly news, at least when coverage turns to the conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. Avoiding the topic is essential to my mental health, especially during my husband's deployment to Baghdad this year. No one explains why better than writer and military spouse Jehanne Dubrow, who catalogues a list of celluloid offenders in the poem "Against War Movies," from her collection Stateside. She confesses what I'm not brave enough to admit:
He's burned or gassed, he's shot between the eyes,
Or shoots himself when he comes home again.
Each movie is a training exercise,
A scenario for how my husband dies.
So I very warily approached The Tillman Story, the new documentary about theTillman family's quest to uncover the circumstances surrounding the 2004 death of football-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, which opens in late August. It's the kind of film I would normally avoid, but the director, Amir Bar-Lev, is a family acquaintance, and when I saw Amir almost two years ago I was intrigued by the working title. At that time, he was calling it I'm Pat Fucking Tillman—reportedly Tillman's last words, as he realized that soldiers from his own Army unit had shot him, fatally, during a firefight in Afghanistan. (Ultimately, the title was deemed too provocative.)
Amir's last documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, about a young art prodigy, exhaustively explored both sides in the argument over whether the 4-year-old featured had actually herself created the paintings attributed to her. In this case, that level of thoroughness would feel redundant, because Tillman's riches-to-rags tale has already been documented so extensively. Indeed, from the post-9/11 moment he gave up his multimillion dollar NFL contract to sign up with the Army Rangers, he was the military's most famous enlisted man. He even received a letter from then-President George W. Bush congratulating him on his decision to serve.
Bar-Lev wisely decides to tell his story from the point of view of Tillman's unconventional family. Tillman's mother, Mary "Dannie" Tillman, suspects soon after Pat's memorial service that her son was killed by friendly fire, despite the Army's insistence that he was the victim of a Taliban ambush who saved the lives of his fellow soldiers by taking the bullet. Her persistence leads to two military investigations, a federal investigation, and ultimately a congressional investigation at which top generals and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified.
Dannie knew nothing could bring her son back, she admits; she just wanted those accountable for what she calls a cover-up to be held responsible. "You don't want to believe the worst" about those in charge, she says, but adds later: "What they said happened didn't happen. You have to set the record straight." Her strong stance puts her in an unusual position for a mother, especially a military mom. The Army pushed to position her son as a hero deserving of the Silver Star, the military's third-highest award for valor. But Dannie wanted answers before she would acquiesce, because she was tortured by the idea that her son was being used as a recruiting tool.
Bar-Lev's saga tracking her search for those answers is persuasive and embarrassing to the Army and the Department of Defense. But this is no typical war movie. It's a thoughtful and nuanced story about a mother and son's mutual devotion, a fresh take on relationships that spring from wartime tragedy, and an important lesson for today's military families.
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.