By Richard Schickel
We pretty much know all we are likely to know about Pat Tillman. And anything we might still like to know about his story we are, I think, unlikely to discover in the future. That said, however, Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, “The Tillman Story,” adds coherence, welcome visual detail and some telling, occasionally poignant, moments to a well-rehearsed narrative.
Tillman, as we all know, was the Arizona Cardinals’ outstanding defensive back who abruptly quit the team (and rejected a potential multimillion-dollar contract) to enlist in the Army in 2002, less than a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On April 22, 2004, he was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. The Army, aided and abetted by the Bush administration, pretended that his was a heroic combat death and hastily awarded him a posthumous Silver Star. It soon emerged, however, that he was killed by friendly (or as everyone connected with the case prefers, “fratricidal”) fire.
Bar-Lev’s film is very good at recounting the details of Tillman’s final moments. His unit was split in two in order to traverse a narrow canyon. Tillman, a corporal, was in the first unit, which became engaged in a fire fight with enemy troops. When the second group of American soldiers arrived, they enthusiastically joined the battle, with some eyewitnesses contending they were mainly looking for bragging rights—“Hey, look at me, I was in combat”—and Tillman, who was too far away to be heard or identified, became their victim.
Since Tillman was the Army’s sole celebrity soldier, this terrible though relatively common accident (the fog of war and all that) could be converted into a solemn and uplifting patriotic occasion. It was Tillman’s family that thwarted this ambition. Something just seemed fishy about the story, and once they dug through thousands of heavily redacted interviews and the hearing transcripts the Army was obliged to supply them, they knew they were right. At a certain level, what was meant to be an inspiring tale of one sort turned into one of quite a different kind—a populist challenge to official prevarication on a quite spectacular level. One of the grim delights of this film is footage of a congressional hearing at which a row of general officers, accompanied by Donald (“Stuff Happens”) Rumsfeld, suffers an epidemic loss of memory about who knew what when as this matter unfolded.
The film works reasonably well as a sort of real-life Frank Capra story, even though it lacks an inspiring ending and, alas, a Mr. Smith or Mr. Deeds or Mr. Doe. We don’t get a firm sense of who Pat Tillman really was or what forces drove him toward his fate. He was the product of a well-educated, middle-class family with a gift for organized sports and disorganized boyhood derring-do that somewhat exceeded the norm. He was small for high-level football but compensated with a hell-for-leather style. The film offers ample evidence that when he hit you, you stayed hit.
Withal—and this is not as uncommon in the jock world as some people think—he was an avid reader, intent on developing his own ideas about a wide range of topics. He read the standard authors—Emerson and his ilk—but also figures like Noam Chomsky, whom he hoped to meet when he completed his tour of duty. More interestingly, he was irreligious, which takes some doing in the sports world, where everybody is always dropping to his knees to thank God for winning a game. At his memorial service, his brother Rich said: “Pat isn’t with God. He’s fucking dead. He wasn’t religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.” Which means that we can rule out conventional piety as a motivating force for Tillman. It also means—for me at least—that he deserves another Silver Star for resisting the torrent of twaddle endlessly bathing our public life.
That, however, leaves us with that other charlatan-refuge—patriotism—as his driving force. But that doesn’t quite wash, either. The film records no recollections of flag-waving speeches by him, though dispassionate references to 9/11 are made. They seem to me no more than something you might say in lieu of having nothing to say.
I am left with the thought that it may have been a rather simple sort of ambition that moved him. I’m OK with that, despite the fact that it is the sin that dares not speak its name in America. It seems to me that what Tillman may have had in mind was a political career: You build on your football fame, then ostentatiously turn your back on it for military service, maybe come back and play a few more years, then take up a more than usually altruistic political life. Of course, he would have had to give up his taste for cuss words and somehow finesse his lack of piety, but there are plenty of precedents for that in our public life. In any case, it is an imputation that Tillman’s silence leaves us free to make.
In his final moments on that Afghan hillside, Pat Tillman was heard to cry out, more than once, “I’m Pat Fucking Tillman.” As if his fame might somehow protect him and his men from the wild-flying bullets. It made sense; the troops knew who he was and admired him. Surely if they knew a celebrity was in their line of fire they would cease and desist. But, of course, he went unheard. And so he died, his head literally separated from his body, his blood pouring down the hill.
Thanks to the Establishment’s truly spectacular mishandling of this case—will they never learn, you can live with screw-ups, never coverups?—Pat Tillman left the country of celebrity and entered the land of myth, innocently, even perhaps tragically, proving that fame, despite its many magical qualities, is not always a reliable form of self-protection. We are reminded, almost daily, that it attracts envy and malevolence. We are reminded, by this case, that in the Godless universe Pat Tillman believed he inhabited, it is no armor at all against the all-conquering fog of mischance that surrounds all of us every day.
Richard Schickel, whose celebrated and prolific career spans 50 years, has been the film critic for Time and Life magazines, has written more than 20 books and has produced, written and directed numerous documentaries.
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