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Movie Review: ‘The Tillman Story’

October 29, 2010

We’ve seen a slew of movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the fictionalized ones simply haven’t connected with the public.  Even last year’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker couldn’t manage to pull in large numbers at the box office.

What’s unique about The Tillman Story is that it puts a face on the war, and consequently humanizes it.  You can’t casually dismiss the story of Pat Tillman and his amazing family.  This is not a fiction movie, this is as real as it gets. And it is ugly.

Pat Tillman was charismatic student-athlete who attended Arizona State University on a football scholarship, and later played in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals.  He gave up that career when he, along with his younger brother Kevin, enlisted in the Army shortly after 9/11.  The two eventually became Army Rangers, and Pat did a tour in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. .  It was during his second tour, in Afghanistan,  that Tillman’s life was cut short.

Initially Tillman was painted as a  hero who died valiantly trying to save his fellow soldiers during a Taliban ambush.  Tillman was praised and awarded the silver medal posthumously.  However, things did not add up to Tillman’s family.   They realized that there was much more to the story.

Pat’s mother Dannie plunged into the daunting task of finding out the truth.  It was eventually uncovered that Pat’s death was a tragic (or perhaps intentional) episode of friendly fire.  Making matters worse, government officials knew the true account of his death and “spun” the story to turn Tillman’s death into a recruiting tool.

The chain of command went up through the ranks, all the way to the White House, and the Bush administration. The terrible truth that Tillman was betrayed (in death) by the very people he served with and for is a bitter pill to swallow.

Director Amir Bar-lev does a superb job of using actual documents, talking heads, family members and army colleagues to slowly lay out the entire story.

Most documentaries worth their salt have strong central characters, and this is no exception. Pat’s mother Dannie is articulate, poised and a pillar of strength on camera.  I  don’t think there are that many mothers out there that could maintain the same level of composure.  It is clear that she wants her son’s story told, and she will do whatever it takes to make that so.

The result is that she is more sympathetic than say,  Cindy Sheehan, whose story was buried under media stunts and politics. Dannie’s direct approach is straight forward, even-handed, and touching. She is truly an inspiration to mothers everywhere.   This is really Dannie’s story to tell.

Pat and the family are presented warts and all, in order that the entire truth be exposed.  Pat’s atheism is discussed, as well as his growing disillusionment with the military’s true motives.

The documentary follows an unconventional timeline.  We are immediately thrust into the events of the ambush, and it is only later in the movie that Pat’s backstory is explored.  The approach works well, because you are invested in the story behind what really happened right from the opening credits. It’s a jarring and effective beginning.

This is an important movie, and it is one that deserves to be seen.  It triumphs by merely letting the story take the stage without relying on all the propaganda and theatrics we see in other documentaries about the war on terror.  Pat Tillman will indeed leave a lasting legacy, it just isn’t the one the military was hoping for.

Rating 4.5/5  The Tillman Story is directed by Amir Bar-lev (My Kid Could Paint That.)  Rated R for language.  Written by Mark Monroe (The Cove) and narrated by Josh Brolin.


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2 Responses to “ Movie Review: ‘The Tillman Story’ ”

  1. Guy Montag on October 29, 2010 at 6:16 am

    “The chain of command went up through the ranks, all the way to the White House, and the Bush administration. The terrible truth that Tillman was betrayed (in death) by the very people he served with and for is a bitter pill to swallow.”

    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 protected General Stanley McChrystal from public scrutiny of 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.

    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 Henry Waxman, Senator Carl Levin, and Senator Jim Webb) and Senator John 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.

    The movie is a great intro to the story. If you want to learn more, I’d suggest Marty Tillman”s “Boots on the Ground by Dusk” (paperback at, Jon Krakauer’s paperback of “Where men Win Glory” or “The [Untold] Tillman Story” posted at

  2. Afghanistan Local Time on November 2, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Been looking for this about Afganistan, thank you!