The opening shot of “The Tillman Story” states its intentions in visual terms. Tillman, a former NFL star-turned-soldier who died in Afghanistan in 2004, stares blankly into the camera as he waits for an interview to begin. Seconds pass. He takes a deep breath. Sitting in silence, free from scrutiny into his life, he simply exists. The ensuing story of Tillman’s death and the national exploitation of his legacy provides a sharp contrast to the intimate nature of encountering the real deal.
Narrated by Josh Brolin, “The Tillman Story” tracks the uneasy investigation into the reality of the player’s death launched by his family in the wake of an official attempt to celebrate him as a hero. Each step of the way, the corruption grows slightly deeper: The military waits until after Tillman’s funeral before declaring that he was killed by friendly fire, but his parents and siblings determine that the story runs even deeper than that. An unnaturally humble public figure, Tillman never revealed his intentions for going to war — but a twisted publicity campaign launched in the wake of his death assumed otherwise.
The government turned Tillman into a hero, elevating his posthumous stature while burying the atrocious errors that led to his death. Recounting the events through interviews with the Tillman family and previously classified government documents, director Amir Bar-Lev provides an exhaustive account of the wrongdoings at hand. It’s not the sole definitive version of the story — Jon Krakauer’s “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” came out in 2009 — but by framing the story as a conspiracy thriller, Bar-Lev finds a natural cinematic hook: Coming across like “The Manchurian Candidate” as a ghost story or “All the President’s Men” with civilian journalists, “The Tillman Story” is loaded with dramatic potential.
Bar-Lev assembles the story with layers of media, old and new. He finds a compelling plot point in the contrast between the mainstream Tillman narrative and his family’s background struggles.Voice-overs accompany footage of Tillman’s stone-faced relatives at a massive memorial held in the Arizona stadium where he used to play for the Cardinals. They express their frustration on the soundtrack while news cameras capture it on their faces. Distraught over the elevation of Tillman to the level of a trite patriotic symbol, their anger drives them toward detective work. “He didn’t really fit into that box,” exclaims Tillman’s mother, Mary, sounding both mournful and disappointed that the country her sons served let them down.
Unlike his last effort, the art world exposé “My Kid Could Paint That,” Bar-Lev avoids putting himself into the story and lets his subjects do the talking. The result is a straightforward but consistently engaging survey of the family’s ferocious search for the truth. The mechanical process of sifting through paperwork is balanced off with more personal glimpses into Tillman’s life, including home photos and video captured by his unit. Gradually, Tillman’s personality and intentions grow clear, and the real crime becomes not the cover-up but the melodramatic fiction that emerged from it.
From an intellectual standpoint, the conclusion in “Tillman” is fundamentally simplistic: “What they said happened didn’t happen,” one subject says. However, by displaying how and why the falsification took place, Bar-Lev creates the haunting sense that “The Tillman Story” has been told many times before. For better or worse, it’s the American movie of the year.