Director Amir Bar-Lev doesn't mince words about the central character in his new film, which opens in the Twin Cities this weekend.
"The icon Pat Tillman is a guy the real Pat Tillman would have hated," he says over the phone. "Because Pat Tillman was by all accounts a guy who was incredibly loyal, incredibly driven, and had incredibly strong beliefs. But one of his greatest qualities was he was always willing to challenge his own beliefs."
Tillman was the talented football player who caused a sensation by setting aside a contract with the NFL to join the US Army after the September 11th attacks. He served a tour of duty in Iraq and then died during his second tour, this time in Afghanistan. At first the US Army reported he died protecting his platoon. Weeks later the military changed its story and admitted "friendly fire" killed Tillman.
The admission came with an apology, but Bar-Lev says it's not worth much.
"If you look back over the last four or five years you'll find that the military, the government have repeatedly apologized to the Tillman family for the mistakes that they have made. This is one of these apologies that's not an apology at all. It's actually a piece of the deception."
Bar-Lev's compelling documentary "The Tillman Story" explores what happened, before during and after Tillman's death. He's also blunt about what he sees as a government cover-up.
"The smugness with which they lied to the American people, it reflects poorly on all of us really," he says.
"The Tillman Story" points its finger all the way up the chain of command, and attacks the claim that the generals and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld didn't know about an effort to suppress the fact that Tillman died as a result of his own side's attack.
Yet Bar-Lev says the responsibility needs to be shared even further.
"I think it's all to easy to try to chalk this up on the last administrations or something like that. But look, their lies worked because the press ate it up, and the press ate it up because we ate it up."
He readily admits the film's debt to Danny Tillman, Pat's mother, who never accepted the official line on what happened. Bar-Lev says the military made a major miscalculation about Danny.
"They handed over 3500 pages of documents related to Pat's death, over to Danny, expecting that she would never actually pour through them," he says.
But go through them she did, despite the fact that many of the pages were black with redactions. She enlisted help from a former Army Ranger who explained and further researched what the official documents said. Bar-Lev says his film stands on the shoulders of Danny Tillman's work.
Bar-Lev says his own view of Pat Tillman changed as he learned more.
"The more we got to know Pat, the more we liked him, the more human he got and the more heroic we actually felt he was," Bar-Lev says. "You know it's hard to emulate a cartoon character. That's one of the things this family's been struggling to correct. If we want to have heroes we can live up to, who we can try an teach kids about, these have to be people who aren't one dimensional caricatures, and that's exactly what Pat has become in his death."
Bar-Lev's last film "My Kid Could Paint That," explored the story of Marla Olmstead, a young girl whose abstract paintings began fetching huge money from collectors. Then people began questioning whether she was actually creating the pictures.
Bar-Lev says there are real parallels between the films. Both are about story-telling he says, and they are both about people who didn't talk publicly about their motivations, Tillman because of his personal philosophy, and Olmstead because she was eight.
"Neither of them said much," Bar-Lev explains. "And in their silence the rest of us came in and spoke volumes about them while disregarding who they actually were, or what were the actual facts."
When asked what impact he hopes for "The Tillman Story" Bar-Lev says he wants members of the public to be more skeptical about what they are told.
"This is a story which should cause people to question something the next time it sounds like a Hollywood thriller," he says.
He also says the story isn't over. He expect there will be more revelations in time.
"When you hear that word 'mistakes' and you'll hear it more and more as this film gets more widely disseminated, you know that the government has not yet come clean," he says.
He has a couple of other things he wants to come of the movie.
"What we hoped would happen with this film is in a way we are giving Pat back to his family and taking him away from this realm of the mythological."
"Because I think we all kind of grabbed at Pat after his death. The Right grabbed at him. Then the Left grabbed at him. The press grabbed at him and he doesn't belong to us. He belongs to his family."
You can hear the first of my conversation with Amir Bar-Lev here: Listen
And here he talks about the iconography surrounding Pat Tillman: Listen
In his “The Fog of War” interview with Jason Guerrasio, Amir Bar-Lev, the director of “The Tillman Story,” said: “… there’s been no culpability on the second half of this tragedy, which is the higher ups trying to cover it up. … to borrow a football metaphor, they [the Tillman family] ran the ball 99 yards over four years time, they handed it off at the one-yard line to Congress and they fumbled it...."
Shortly after Sundance, Bar-Lev emailed me that “he was pretty hard on the Democratic Congress in his film.” True, his film does portray Congressman Waxman’s Oversight Committee as ineptly failing to get answers from the top military leadership during their hearing.
However, Bar-Lev’s film missed the ”untold story” that both the Democratic Congress and the Obama Presidency shielded General Stanley McChrystal from scrutiny and punishment for his central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. This cover-up was a thoroughly bi-partisan affair. It wasn’t just a case of the Bush administration and the Army stonewalling the Democratic Congress. Congress didn’t just “fumble” the ball, they threw the game.
Five years ago, Pat Tillman’s family were handed a tarnished Silver Star. It was a travesty of justice that President Obama and the Senate promoted General McChrystal to the Army’s highest rank, and handed him his fourth star.
It’s not surprising that after their initial cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death fell apart, Army officers and the Bush administration lied to protect their careers. But after they took control of both Houses of Congress in 2006, the Democrats (including Congressman Waxman, Senator Levin, Senator Webb) and Senator McCain could have gone after those responsible. Or at least not promoted them!
Just before the 2006 mid-term elections, Kevin Tillman published his eloquent letter, “After Pat’s Birthday”. Kevin had hoped a Democratic Congress would bring accountability back to our country. But, just as with warrantless wiretapping and torture, those responsible for the cover-up of his brother’s friendly-fire death have never been held accountable for their actions.
Last month I posted “The [Untold] Tillman Story” at http://www.feralfirefighter.blogspot.com
And the media’s been part of the whitewash as well (e.g. I detail my encounter with NYT’s Thom Shanker and CNAS’s Andrew Exum who both "exonerated" McChrystal of all wrong-doing.