No Concessions: “I’m Pat Fucking Tillman!”

The Tillman Story is an outstanding story of heroism—not, however, the one you were told. Or rather, sold.

You remember the official story. How in the wake of 9/11 Tillman, a star player with the Arizona Cardinals, left football behind to join the Army Rangers with his brother. How in April 2004 he died a hero, fighting the enemy in the mountains of Afghanistan, and received a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and a promotion to corporal for his valor.

How, not long thereafter, following saturation media coverage that towed the government line, the circumstances of his death were revealed to be a lie, that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

For most of us that was that, a bitter end and another reminder that neither our leaders nor our pundits can be fully trusted to tell the truth when a more inspiring story that “fits the narrative” can be spun. For the Tillman family, however, it was the just the beginning of a frustrating process to uncover what really happened that terrible day, and rescue their son from his martyrdom. Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, which opens today in limited release, brings us up to date and leaves us shattered.

Bar-Lev (now at work on a Jerry Garcia biopic) directed the acclaimed Fighter (2000), about two elderly Czech Holocaust survivors revisiting the labor camp that so scarred them, and My Kid Could Paint That (2007). In that film, the mom and dad of a four-year-old girl whose abstract paintings have touched off a sensation come under scrutiny for creating the work themselves. Bar-Lev is more of a presence in each, but here he lets a much different story of parents under pressure unfold on its own. The documentary is largely related by Mary “Dannie” Tillman, Pat’s determined mother, who sifted through the 3,000 pages of much-redacted material she received from the government with the help of blogger Stan Goff, a retired special ops soldier equipped to read between the lines.

What we learn is a shocking story of betrayal. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had his eye on Tillman right from his enlistment, and it becomes clear that the power brokers were determined to make use of him in death. Alive, we see, he was of little use to the Bush-era propaganda machine. While a team player in many respects, who followed members of his mother’s family into war despite a loving wife and a lucrative career, Tillman was far from a dumb jock easily led to the trough. He looked like Seann William Scott crossed with a refrigerator, but the pensive atheist read Emerson and Chomsky, refused all media interviews during his service, and seems to have been a Democrat, a possibility greeted with pop-eyed disbelief by Ann Coulter on one of the wretched shows excerpted for the film.

Deployed to Iraq with his brother he was also embarrassed by the tarted-up rescue of Pvt. Jessica Lynch, which they provided perimeter support for, and was critical of the war there. But when the government and the NFL agreed to have him honorably discharged to resume his career—a potential publicity bonanza—Tillman refused. He’d signed up for three years, and a deal was a deal.

We know that in the end he got a raw one. Caught in a lie, a lie that was manufactured on the spot, the government later claimed that Tillman was a casualty of the “fog of war.” The film shows that the mist was smokescreen. Tillman’s last words? Not “Let’s take to the fight to the enemy,” as the official Pentagon press release had it, but, as members of his platoon corroborated, “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” as the firefight consumed him. What exactly happened? It’s difficult to say—in a shameful violation of military protocol, Tillman’s uniform and personal effects, including his diary, were burned before any investigation could take place, and his platoon mates silenced immediately after his killing.

With the help of some of them, however, the film is able to deconstruct the myth of Pat Tillman, aided by judicious editing of interviews and news footage, terse narration by Josh Brolin, and some well-chosen music, including Neil Young’s “Hawks and Doves.” Other members of his family also lend a hand. Brother Richard burst through the officially sanctioned sanctimony at his memorial service, and was cut off by the news crews as he cried, “He’s not with God, he’s fucking dead.” The F-word was a constant in the Tillman household, Dannie admits, and it served them well. As she and Goff pulled apart the tissue of lies Tillman’s father, also named Patrick, fired off an angry letter to the lackadaisical military investigators that ended with a “fuck you,” one that got the attention of the Department of Defense and eventually led to congressional hearings…and another disappointing whitewash, as Rumsfeld and top generals claimed not to have received a damaging memo that acknowledged Tillman’s fratricide just as the bamboozling was beginning.

By all rights The Tillman Story should be depressing as hell. The truth hurts, and from the gross irresponsibility of the soldiers all the way up to the waffling and dissembling of the top brass it’s hard not to recoil. For allowing a credulous media to spoon-feed us what we want to hear we’re not let off the hook, either. Yet it’s also inspiring. The expressions on his survivors’ faces as a statue is erected in Tillman’s honor are complicated, and watching the film we understand why. He died twice, once senselessly, and again as a sacrifice to the government’s interest in peddling its war, the one whose damage they were determined to keep offscreen. All they can do to return him to life size is to speak truth to power, and in that they’re succeeding remarkably well.

(Side note: Those “fucks” earned this non-exploitative and invaluable documentary an R rating. The Motion Picture Association of America should be fucking ashamed.)

Queue Tip: In 2002 Bosnian writer-director Danis Tanovic won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for the biting No Man’s Land, and Colin Farrell was riding high as Hollywood’s newest It Guy. In 2010 Farrell has slid down the ladder a rung or two and is now a character lead, which suits him; free of stardust he’s been doing good work for a few years now. Rarely more anonymously, however, than in Triage, Tanovic’s latest, which has gone straight to DVD. So much for Oscar’s bearing on future work.

All the more regrettable in that Triage (also on Blu-ray) is a good film, solid, direct, and honest, one that deserved at least the by-now standard two-week run in arthouses before shuffling off to Netflix. So much, too, though, for the ability of The Hurt Locker’s Oscars to lift the curse on features dealing with Middle East conflict. Adapted from a 1998 novel by war correspondent Scott Anderson, Triage casts Farrell as Mark, a war photographer known for his aggressive scoops. On assignment in Iraqi Kurdistan with his friend and colleague David (Jamie Sives) the two are swept up in Saddam Hussein’s unfolding genocide of the 80s, where mass killings are common and landmines are everywhere. They meet Dr. Talzani (Branko Djuric), who practices triage—executing, as humanely as possible, those too ill or wounded to survive. Triage is the metaphor that drives the story, as Mark and David are separated and Mark, injured in an explosion, returns to his native Dublin alone, unable to remember what happened to his friend.

At a loss as to how to reach him Mark’s wife, Elena (Paz Vega, star of Sex and Lucia and Spanglish), contacts her grandfather Joaquin, a psychiatrist both esteemed and controversial for his work rehabilitating the perpetrators of the Spanish Civil War, who would go on to lead the country. Together a reluctant Mark and a persistent Joaquin solve the mystery, in stagy but compelling sequences that also bring home a few universal truths about war and war guilt.

Like I said, a good film, schematic in a literary way but free of preaching, brought to our homes in a sharp (2.35:1 aspect ratio) transfer. (Spaghetti Western Spain stands in, convincingly, for Kurdistan.) Farrell, who lost considerable weight for the part, is excellent as a gaunt witness to history who is finally forced to see beyond the neutrality of his camera lens. But my main interest in watching it was for Christopher Lee, who plays Joaquin. Hammer’s Dracula has had a blown-sideways-through-moviedom career since his horror heyday, one that has only intensified for the 88-year-old actor since Peter Jackson, George Lucas, and Tim Burton cast him in their blockbusters. Joaquin may be the biggest part he has ever had, and he gives a rich performance, including a powerful speech where he explains to Elena why he gave comfort to the enemy. In the supplementary interviews Lee says this is the most dialogue he’s ever had to speak in a film, and he speaks it beautifully. Farrell calls him “an old school gentleman much like my grandfather…17′ 4″ tall with a booming voice and an incredibly significant presence.” It’s immensely gratifying for this fan to see him so beloved, and in a movie as satisfying as Triage.