I had a curious chuckle looking at the poster for The Tillman Story after I got done watching the movie. The tagline states that the film is "a mystery, a cover up, a crime, one family will risk everything for the truth". Strange that a film about twisting a tragedy into a narrative befitting different purposes would promote the story with a tagline that could come from a John Grisham novel. Thankfully, the movie itself is not nearly as sensational.
For those unfamiliar with the tragedy, Pat Tillman was a star tackler playing in the NFL when he decided to drop his career and go join the Army Rangers. Despite the opportunity to drop his responsibility and head home, he decided to stay with the Rangers until his death in 2004. The cause of that death is the catalyst of the film and investigation into a probable cover-up.
The initial reports of his death indicating that he lost his life during an ambush by enemy terrorists. As people were questioned and statements made, it turns out that the death came from an unfortunate bout of friendly fire due to some misidentification between two different regiments of American troops. Pat's family becomes involved in the investigation and tries to figure out exactly what happened that day while dealing with a country whose leaders decided to spin the event into a cause to rally around.
The movie tries to paint an interesting and complicated portrait of a man who never really told anyone why he decided to join the Rangers. This is contrasted with the many portraits that other people try to paint of him. There's the Tillman who was a gung-ho patriot for freedom, the Tillman who wanted his name associated with his families long line of soldiers, the Tillman who was a quiet intellectual and felt the need to fight for some reason, the Tillman who was a brash upstart who couldn't follow orders...and on and on and on.
The argument that the movie tries to make is that no one really knew what Tillman's exact reasons for joining the military were. The fact that the government tried to twist his death into a rallying cry while covering up the facts of the incident is definite cause for alarm and rage. Unfortunately, the same level of urgency and anger that his family seemed to be going through does not really come across in the film.
Let it be said that this is still an effective movie, it's just not as engaging as I would have liked. Director Amir Bar-Lev's attempts at getting the complexity of Tillman through to the audience are admirable but they come at a cost. There are too many threads running loose that are not arranged in any cohesive faction. In the beginning of the film we're taken to a late stage of the investigation, then back in time to some of Tillman's military stint, then forward back to the investigation, then back to his childhood.
This crisscrossing loses what connections it could have made by leaving so many narrative threads dangling. The film does wrap up each loose end successfully (or rather, as wrapped up as a story like this can be) but it comes at a lessened emotional payoff than what could have been obtained. Granted, this isn't a Michael Moore styled rabble rousing documentary. It's meant to tell what happened in a way that's a bit easier to follow and try and give the Tillman family some of their dignity back.
I did enjoy the fact that the film did not try and point it's finger toward a specific person or group and say that they were to blame. What happened was a confusing tragedy and one interesting point that the movie makes is that any further efforts by the family to find out what happened that day may be in vain. It's the after effects and the spin that needed to be stopped. One particularly troubling point was the fact that Tillman was an atheist and numerous government officials spoke of how he was with God now.
That, and so many other things, could have been put in a better light if it weren't all serving a specific personal agenda. The Tillman family deserved their privacy and to bury their son, husband, and brother as Pat wished. The film respects those wishes in many ways and does not get angry at the tragedy along with them. There are atheists in foxholes and they need to be recognized too.