REVIEW: Powerful Tillman Story Explores the PR War Behind the War

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If you have any sense of how the U.S. military protects both its own and itself -- its image, its insularity and its sense of entitlement -- very little in Amir Bar-Lev's documentary The Tillman Story will surprise you. But The Tillman Story isn't designed to be a shockeroo exposé; it's more a slow, steady rumble of anger and dismay at what the U.S. military, and the government, can get away with in the name of public relations, as if PR -- and not human lives -- were the most important consideration during wartime.

In 2002 Pat Tillman walked away from a multimillion-dollar career in the National Football League to join the Army Rangers, refusing to give any detailed public explanation for his decision. In late April 2004, Americans at home heard the news -- sad and shocking largely because this was a soldier with a name we could easily put a face to -- that Tillman had been killed in an ambush by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The military's official account of his death painted him as a heroic leader; he received a laudatory memorial service and a Silver Star.

Five weeks later, military officials announced that Tillman had, in fact, been killed by friendly fire. The subtext -- so blatant you can hardly call it a subtext -- is that the military had spun this sad event to serve its own purposes, using the death of this by all accounts likeable, intelligent, principled soldier as a public relations tool, a way of polishing up, in the public's eyes, the glory and integrity of the American military.

The Tillman Story focuses on that cover-up, and particularly on the dogged efforts of Tillman's parents, Mary "Dannie" Tillman, formerly a special-education teacher, and Patrick Tillman Sr., a lawyer, to first find out what really happened to their son and then to hold the military accountable for its deceit. The fact that they're only semi-successful at both is part of what makes The Tillman Story so affecting: Bar-Lev lays the story out in the coolest terms, including interviews with Tillman's widow, Marie, who fiercely protects her husband's privacy but also drops subtle clues about what kind of guy he was; his younger brother, Richard, who suffered a telling, and poignantly justified, mini-meltdown during Tillman's official memorial service; two of the Rangers who were close to Tillman and knew the truth about his death even as the Army asked them to cover it up; and a blogger and former special-ops soldier, the extremely wry Stan Goff, who helped Dannie sift through thousands of pages of redacted documents to unearth some of the seedier secrets behind Tillman's death.

Conspicuously absent from these interviews is Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother -- the two enlisted together, just months after Pat and Marie's wedding. But Kevin does make an appearance late in the film, in footage of the Congressional hearings investigating (and, infuriatingly, exonerating) military officials involved in the cover-up, and his pained and painful testimony is all the explanation we need for his reticence in speaking up about what happened to his brother. (Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also shows up in that footage, triggering that peculiar effect you get when you see a despised news figure who's been out of the public eye for a while: He's like the memory of a meal that gave you food poisoning.)

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Comments

  • bierce says:

    Pat Tillman: Selfless American Hero
    Pentagon: Clueless Ass-Covering Idiots
    There, I just saved you ten bucks.

  • Eric says:

    Tillman is such a hero...I think the writer of this story misses a huge point. PR in wartime is extremely important. It's important for morale and it's important to wear the enemy down. Let's face it, the only way America loses a war, and thus more American lives, is to lose the PR war. Our enemies know they can't beat us on the battle field, but in the battle of public opionion. Our enemies also know far too well that we don't have the stomach for war. They, on the other hand, love to send their children into the arms of Americans as exploding body parts. Get a clue!

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: The subtext — so blatant you can hardly call it a subtext — is that the military had spun this sad event to serve its own purposes, using the death of this by all accounts likeable, intelligent, principled soldier as a public relations tool, a way of polishing up, in the public’s eyes, the glory and integrity of the American military.
    It's not PR, per se -- more a matter of myth-making -- but there is still something reality-drifting about the way you've put this. He was by all accounts likeable, intelligent, principled -- he was the ideal soldier ... of our imagination: the one, that is, that WE JUST KNOW (that in every story / account) is going to be used and disposed of, just as soon as we hear of this set-up. We all know there is an impulse to see him as pure virtue, so that the villain seems more awfully indifferent / caring -- let's be careful / human-enough not to use him so that the parental figure / authority-figure seems just right for our hatred (and perhaps, even, for some -- eventual eager acquiescence).

  • STARCHY says:

    uhm its not a "story", its a documentary film - I know because I WATCHED it (unlike you I presume?)
    I suggest you "get a clue" and watch the film - you just might learn something about the "PR war" you are so quick to support.
    And while you are at it - check out "Fog of War" and "Why We Fight" - two other excellent documentaries about the Military/Industrial complex that continues to suck away the moral core of our great country.

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