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The Expendable

The Tillman Story (2010)

Donald Lee/The Weinstein Company

Pat Tillman was a hero. The U.S. government got that right. Yet the bungling of the story of that heroism, the misshaping of the late soldier’s legacy to fit a classical propaganda narrative stands as one of the shameful episodes of the past decade.

In covering-up the ex-football player’s friendly-fire death, transforming it into a story of demise amid enemy fire, the military hierarchy did more than simply embellish a tragic mistake with a feel-good spin. It transformed a unique, three-dimensional man — a person with thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams — into a caricature of martyrdom.

In so doing, “The Tillman Story” — a documentary about his life and death — suggests, the United States effectively killed him all over again. Amir Bar-Lev’s searing, emotional portrait of the man Tillman was and the herculean efforts undertaken by his mother Mary Tillman to uncover the truth of his death, is a document of our time and for the ages. On one level, it’s the story of a specific, defining moment of the tumultuous recent American past. On another, grander scale it reaches beyond the facts of Tillman’s story to arrive at key, universal truths about the ways our heroes are made and defined.

Adopting an interlinear structure centered on the deadly confusion that overcame Tillman and his unit in Spera, Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, Mr. Bar-Lev circles back to explore the person behind the now iconic, rugged face, and powers forward alongside Ms. Tillman’s quest to understand what happened to her son. The complex interweaving facilitates Mr. Bar-Lev’s multifaceted undercutting of the government’s portrait.

The filmmaker’s journey into the past reveals a thoughtful, principled man with strongly held, surprisingly progressive views and a passion for philosophy, an individual who was an aberration in the jock culture of professional sports and even further removed from the John Wayne type he was made out to be. Through home video, most hauntingly that of Tillman’s wedding mere weeks before enlisting, and the testimony of loved ones, Mr. Bar-Lev thwarts common preconceptions and presents a deeper, richer picture of the late soldier’s identity.

The biographical elements inform the rest of the picture, enhancing the grief surrounding Tillman’s terrible end while lending urgency to Ms. Tillman’s fierce fight with the propaganda machine. Tillman detested the intense fascination with his enlistment, the drive to force martyrdom upon him for his choice to sacrifice National Football League dollars for his country. He was, to borrow the age-old cliché, one of the boys, nothing more. There could, therefore, be no greater disregard for those wishes than the posthumous stripping away of the complex mix of emotions and ideas that informed him.

The dishonest creation of Pat Tillman — flag-waving hero, complete with the statue of his likeness that sits in front of the Arizona Cardinals’ home stadium — has, in a sense, killed him again. Our society needs its legends, its inspirations, and Tillman has served that function well, as the epitome of 21st century selflessness and patriotism. But that classical, smoothly defined image was but a small part of Ms. Tillman’s son, as must be our popular imagining of all those we deify with busts, memorials, stories and songs.

“The Tillman Story,” then, is in the end about a mother’s last, great act of love for her child: the reclaiming of his humanity.


Opened on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev; written by Mr. Bar-Lev, Joe Bini and Mark Monroe; narrated by Josh Brolin; directors of photography, Sean Kirby and Igor Martinovic; edited by Joshua Altman, Mr. Bini and Gabriel Rhodes; music by Philip Sheppard; produced by John Battsek; released by the Weinstein Company. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is rated R.


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