The last words of Pat Tillman, uttered in an Afghani canyon in the last moments before one of his fellow American soldiers blew his head off, were a desperate, enraged assertion of identity: "I'm Pat fucking Tillman!"
In the days following the death of the star NFL safety, who left the Arizona Cardinals to enlist as an Army Ranger, the military began a campaign to erase all traces of that individuality. His superiors shipped home witnesses to the "friendly fire" with instructions not to tell his family how he died. They awarded him the Silver Star for courage in the face of the enemy. They burned his diary. Army brass arrived at the Tillman home in California, demanding that his family agree to have him interred in a military cemetery—even though he had explicitly rejected such a burial. They were getting rid of Pat Tillman, and replacing him with Pat Tillman, Hero.
If it is no longer brave or audacious, at this late date, to point out that our Middle Eastern wars have been fought on a foundation of jingoism and fear-mongering, Amir Bar-Lev's sober new documentary The Tillman Story remains a profoundly troubling work, because it shows the personal idealism that was betrayed to cook up the rankest agitprop. The shameful irony is that nobody needed to lie to make Pat Tillman a hero: The facts do little to undermine the impression that here was the perfectly constituted American male. The lies were told to make the war that killed him look heroic, instead of the chaotic and possibly futile slog that he knew it to be. (While he expressed doubts about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Tillman steadily kept his reasons for enlisting to himself.) A month after seeing the movie, I'm still enraged, and I trust it's not merely because this particular collateral damage was a corn-fed white boy. "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend," E.M. Forster famously wrote, "I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." Our government tried to make its soldiers do both.
But the movie is called The Tillman Story, not just The Pat Tillman Story, and that expansion makes the film more than a record of sanctioned treachery. "They just picked the wrong family to do [this] in front of," says one of the Tillman clan. The Army must have sensed the first inklings of its error at Tillman's funeral, when his younger brother Rich—who was not himself entirely sober—responded to a litany of official platitudes about his brother going to heaven. "Pat isn't with God," the film shows Rich Tillman declaring. "He's fucking dead. He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead." (His aunt notes with amusement that the Tillman boys were always quick to deploy the F-bomb.) The rest of the family, especially his mother Mary, proved as tenacious as Rich in questioning blithe assurances—their courage in demanding further investigation into the fate of their blunt-talking son became an extension of his character, even as his football jersey flowed emptily across the stands of Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium.
Bar-Lev's filmmaking is not entirely immune to the pitfalls that beset most contemporary antiwar documentaries. He is a little too eager to grant moral plea-bargains to the conspirators who will claim that the cover-up rose further along the chain of command. (He doesn't need to: The Bush administration's top brass incriminate themselves quite effectively in a montage of sudden and spectacular amnesia before Congressional inquests.) But The Tillman Story is carefully attuned to the painful absurdities of American life: The camera stays trained on a baby-faced Mormon private who remembers the atheistic Tillman as a calming mentor, but is wracked with guilt that he didn't try harder to save his soul from hell. Is it fears like these—the terrifying incongruity of what we're supposed to believe with what we've seen about real people—that make us such easy marks for vulgar pageantry and propaganda? At any rate, Pat Tillman has been given a statue outside the football stadium where he was first declared a kind of hero. He has his helmet off, his long hair cascading down his shoulders, and he is screaming. It's almost as if he were trapped inside there, protesting against being made into a cast-metal saint for a cause not his own. I think I know what word he's saying.