Amir Bar-Lev On What You See (and What You Don't) In His Hot Sundance Doc The Tillman Story
In May of 2002, handsome football player Pat Tillman turned down the fame and fortune of the NFL to enlist in the Army and fight in Afghanistan. "We might want to keep an eye on him," then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote to a colleague, and indeed, when Tillman was killed almost two years later, the administration advanced the narrative that Tillman had been shot while bravely defending his troops from the Taliban.
Only, that's not what happened. Tillman had actually been killed by his own troops in a case of friendly fire, and the Army's cover-up was so outrageous (Tillman's body armor, uniform and vest were burned) and all-encompassing (as leaked memos from the highest levels of government would show), that Amir Bar-Lev's Sundance documentary The Tillman Story can't help but compel. Movieline spoke to Bar-Lev this week about the film's deleted moments, the influence of the Greatful Dead on his style, and his outrage that a key conspirator is an important part of President Obama's administration.
When did Pat Tillman first start to interest you as a subject?
I knew about Pat Tillman what everyone else did: just the barest sketches, and I got really intrigued. I got a little more intrigued when I started to realize that he had been lionized by pro-war, very patriotic elements, and I started to find out things about his personality that sounded like people I grew up with -- and I'm from Berkeley.
Like the fact that he wanted to have a meeting with Noam Chomsky?
Yeah, the Chomsky thing, and the way he was raised, and stuff like that. What really got me going, though, is when I realized that what I was doing to Pat Tillman was what the right was doing to Pat Tillman: admiring the hell out of him, and then trying to appropriate him and make him emblematic of one group or another. That was my intellectual journey with it, to realize that this guy's more complicated [than I'd thought] and that he challenges us to think outside the box. I think it's a natural human condition to put boxes around things, and I was doing that myself.
Do you think part of that is because he's such a potent example of American masculinity? He was a football player, after all, and he's so handsome and square-jawed that he's almost a caricature of an American man.
But he isn't. He's been made into a caricature, but there are sides of his personality that don't fit into that mold. One thing that I admire a ton about Pat Tillman is that he was a charismatic guy and always the center of attention who had almost a preternatural sense of when someone was being excluded. He was the kind of guy who would always widen out the circle of chairs to include whoever was being marginalized. These are things that aren't part of the jutting-chin American hero cartoon of Pat Tillman that are just as heroic, if not more heroic.
I could tell that you were trying to protect Pat's desire to never reveal the reason he enlisted. Were you curious?
Oh yeah, listen, I am very curious. We were faced with this challenge of making the movie, which is that he asked for privacy and his family respects that even after his death. I could have disrespected that and decided that it was more important for me to dish out the facts, or I could have not. At the same time, I wanted to dispel some of the caricatures about why he enlisted. It was a challenge, and I hope we've done it the right way. You know, people keep asking me about the Jon Krakauer book (Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, released in September 2009), and I wasn't given access to that until we had basically locked picture. When I got the book, before I read it beginning to end, I flipped through it as quickly as possible to get to the diary entry of why Pat Tillman enlisted. I'll just say that when you look at the diary entry, there's no mention of 9/11, there's no mention of patriotism, there's no mention of America -- none of the things that his decision is associated with are in that diary entry. I feel like we've treated it right in the film.
Since Pat cherished his privacy, did that make it difficult to coax his family and fellow military men to talk to you?
It was a problem that I think raised the bar for the film and actually helped it. The family has a very healthy sense of what's private and public at a time when nobody seems to have that sense anymore. I think film watchers and television watchers have been taught to expect that narrative will reach all the way into every private corner of every edifice of our existence. They want to see a person cry at the moment they find out Pat dies. They have this expectation...
But you must be used to that. Your last documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, didn't have any easy answers, either.
Right. Well, I don't think easy answers exist anywhere, except for in the mainstream media. You know what I mean? I think it's extremely frustrating for the family because they've basically lost Pat twice: once to death, and once to the people who turned him into a cartoon. And it's not the just the military and the government who did that, but also the media.
So was it easy to convince them that you wouldn't do the same?
No, it wasn't easy. That's a good question. Making the film was a process of making sure we weren't doing that, and we edited the film for a year, in part because of that. We didn't want to engage in that hagiography that has flattened Pat Tillman.
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