There are three important things going on in "The Tillman Story" (in selected theatres today), two of which almost make the conspiracy-mongering documentary worth your time. The first and best is the opportunity to get to know better the extraordinary and extraordinarily complicated and interesting Pat Tillman. In the best sense of the word, this was a fierce and fiercely passionate man - fierce on the football field, fierce on the battlefield, and fierce in his personal beliefs. This was also a man who only ever dated one woman, the woman he would marry the same week he enlisted; and my guess is that Tillman was the kind of man and husband who found leaving the fame of professional football much easier than leaving his young bride.
You also meet Tillman's family; his parents, brother and wife - a decent, loving, inconsolable group dealing with the terrible loss of someone they obviously loved and miss very much. This is a family furious with a United States government who didn't know all the facts before they told the story of Tillman's death to them, and to the American people. And as far as that goes, they are right to be angry.
Unfortunately, you also witness a partisan filmmaker attempting to prop up the absurd anti-Bush conspiracy theory that it wasn't the ever-reliable incompetence of government bureaucracy that caused what was probably the second worst day in this family's life - the day they were told Tillman had been killed in a friendly fire incident, but rather a sinister plot hatched by the Administration and the Pentagon to use Tillman's death as a flag-waving symbol to bolster military recruitment and support for the war. The Tillman family agrees wholeheartedly with this conspiracy, believes that the memory of their heroic son was maliciously abused in this way. But with all due respect to them (and they are due our respect), neither logic nor facts come close to making that case.
As far as addressing the specific details surrounding the film's specific charges, using his military experience and keen mind, Kurt Schlichter has already taken much of the film's case completely apart, piece by piece, and I urge you to read his review. My review will remain focused solely within the context of the documentary itself, a documentary no intellectually honest person can respect, much less champion.
To director Amir Bar-Lev's credit, the most important fact of this entire case is not left out of what basically plays like an overlong "60 Minutes" segment. But this important fact is glossed over and presented so early on that - probably by design - you might forget all about it during the third act as circumstantial evidence is laid out hot and heavy with the help of foreboding camera moves - such as the one that slowly rises though a mob chart of Administration "bad guys" until ominously arriving at the smiling face of one President George W. Bush. It's just too bad for Bar-Lev that the melodramatic use of a camera crane doesn't equal damning facts.
On May 3rd, 2004, a memorial for Pat Tillman took place in San Jose's Municipal Rose Garden. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and both his family and the whole world believed he had been killed in a Taliban ambush during a brave attempt to draw their fire in order to save his own men. Just a few weeks later, the Army would come forward to acknowledge that this narrative was wrong and that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.
At this point, the question that came to my mind was why would the Pentagon and the Bush Administration voluntarily come forward and uncover their own conspiracy? The film makes no mention of any outside pressure on the Pentagon from the Tillman family or even the media to get the bottom of anything. Meaning that at this point everyone believed the initial report and apparently all the Administration and military had to do to keep us all believing was to keep their mouths shut.
So the question is: If the idea was to use Tillman's death for nefarious pro-war purposes, why just a few weeks after the memorial service would those with the most to lose from doing so, voluntarily kick over a political hornets' nest by telling the truth? Why not milk the situation for as long as possible and for as much propaganda as possible, especially with a presidential election just five months off? At the very least, why not save all the political heartache and fallout this revelation was sure to bring (and did) and stall until after Bush is reelected?
A producer once told me that whenever you have a film character open a refrigerator door you either have to show them close it or include the sound effect of the door closing, or else the audience will get unsettled thinking the door has been left open. Bar-Lev's refusal to address or explain why a supposed-group of conspirators would of their own volition blow the whistle on their own supposed conspiracy leaves that door open. And no fancy camera move or sinister scoring is going to close it.
As the film moves towards its climax, an August of 2007 Congressional hearing, the conspiracy becomes even less convincing. Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman brought together all the players, including Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, to testify under oath and before the television cameras about what they knew and when they knew it. You get the sense that Bar-Lev actually wants us to believe that Henry Waxman, one of the most extreme Bush haters in all of Congress, was - at best - less than enthused at this opportunity or maybe even in on the alleged cover up.
Bar-Lev's sin of omission is not giving the audience any background on Waxman's investigative crusades to bring Bush down, which would go a long way towards giving this Congressional hearing looking into the Tillman case credibility. But that kind of knowledge would also work against the filmmaker's obvious political agenda. No one wanted Bush's scalp more than Henry Waxman. Instead, however, all we see are shots of the Congressman looking indifferent and bored.
To anyone who's even a tenth the independent thinker Pat Tillman was, this documentary looking into his death never rises above the level of left-wing propaganda.
Pat Tillman was a patriot and an American hero, and the truth of what happened that terrible day changes none of that. As far as Pat Tillman's family, there is nothing they deserve more than whatever emotional closure one can have in such a situation. I do hope they find it. But where they're looking for it now, it simply doesn't exist.