The leader of a small team of army Rangers on a reconnaissance sweep in the Afghan hills was startled by bursts of gunfire from below. They came not from Taliban forces but from the second half of his own platoon, progressing around a bend in the road. The young Ranger threw a smoke grenade, and the firing stopped, but the shooters continued to advance. From perhaps only 40 yards (37 m) away, they opened fire again, wounding him. "I'm Pat f______ Tillman!" he cried. The shooting resumed, and his head was in the words of Bryan O'Neal, the soldier nearest him "completely gone." In the fierce volley, Tillman, 27, was the only Ranger killed.
This is the eyewitness account of events that happened on April 22, 2004. But it is not the version the world heard first. The Army reported that an enemy ambush killed Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals safety who in early 2002 rejected a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the Army with his brother Kevin. Tillman was the most famous enlisted man in the war on terrorism; his death, besides being a personal tragedy, would be a p.r. nightmare. So, as Army veteran and Tillman family adviser Stan Goff said of the military's thinking, "let's spin this as a heroic action. We'll turn his dead body into a recruiting poster." To impede any investigation, the Army destroyed Tillman's uniform and diary. It took five weeks for a new narrative to emerge: Tillman was the victim of friendly fire, a fatal mistake made in the chaotic fog of war. No soldiers were charged in his death.
Much of this is known from news reports and Jon Krakauer's book Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. What's salutary about Amir Bar-Lev's documentary The Tillman Story is that it puts faces on the facts not just Tillman's he-man mug but also his Army mates' and especially his remarkable family's. His mother Mary, known as Dannie, sleuthed through 3,000 pages of heavily censored military documents in an attempt to find out who killed her son and who in the Army hierarchy approved the cover-up. His father Patrick Sr., a lawyer, sent the Army a blistering letter that reopened the case in 2005. Tillman's widow Marie stood up to pressure from the military to have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery, an honor Tillman had refused in writing. Brothers Kevin and Richard offered flinty moral support.
Tillman's death too poignant and tidy not to exploit cued propaganda from the Bush Administration, fact-free doggerel from clueless media and treacly tributes from football organizations. The movie shows the family standing solemnly on the field of Tillman's alma mater, Arizona State, as just in front of them, cheerleaders in tank tops shake their pom-poms to "Stars and Stripes Forever." No satirist would have dared paint that picture.
A Thriller and a Love Story
The real pat Tillman, as described by his family and fellow soldiers, was not the gung-ho jock and homespun patriot the Army tried to paint him as. Whatever his motives for enlisting (he never spoke of them in public), he was an Academic All-American, an atheist, an admirer of leftist author Noam Chomsky and, privately, a critic of the Iraq invasion. His Army buddy Russell Baer recalls that, watching the 2002 bombing of Baghdad, Tillman spat out, "This war is just so f______ illegal."
After his death, he might have been a poster boy for antiwar Democrats, but a 2007 congressional hearing chaired by Representative Henry Waxman achieved nothing. The Democrats asked only softball questions of then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who escaped unscathed. "It was embarrassing to watch," Patrick Sr. says. "These guys didn't have the ammunition to cross-examine [Rumsfeld] and catch him in a lie."
Meticulous in its amassing of interviews, news footage and Army documents, The Tillman Story plays like a mystery of epic proportions and awful implications. Neither of the big questions Who killed him? How high did the cover-up go? has been solved to the satisfaction of either the grieving Tillmans or the conspiracy theorists who believe the Army knew of his doubts about the war and moved to silence him before he spoke out. But this thriller is also, and primarily, a love story: a tale of the ferocious bond, from birth and beyond death, of all the Tillmans, especially Dannie, for their Pat. In Afghanistan or back in California, this is one attractive, thoughtful, ornery, heroic family.