The Tillman Story is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and down-right frustrating documentary. If you’re looking for a a feel-good portrait of a war hero, you should definitely look elsewhere. This film is a painfully honest portrayal of one man’s sacrifice and his family’s reaction to the shameful events after the fact that discusses what it means to be a true hero and propaganda in the modern age.
In 2002, Pat Tillman, a highly successful defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals, along with his brother, Kevin, enlisted in the US Army. After two years serving in the military, he was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. This inspirational story of heroism and valor in battle seemed perfect for an administration struggling to promote an increasingly unpopular war. But it proved too perfect. In this eye-opening doc, Tillman’s family exposes the cover-up that hid the truth regarding his tragic death and tries to rectify their loved one’s image after the press took advantage of their loss.
Somehow, I had no idea what the real story behind Pat Tillman was. Although it was big news, both when he left his football career as well as when he was killed and all the way through until the massive cover-up was revealed, I missed that last most important part. This film really enlightened me in that respect as I was shocked as the mystery unraveled. However, I’m guessing most people are more familiar with the tale. Still, this fact-filled documentary does its best to spread the true story behind the media mess and eliminate any political agenda or hero-making.
And though the facts are spotless, what makes this such an excellent documentary is simply how much thought-provoking material it hits upon. The nature of heroism, modern propaganda, searching for the truth, privacy, and family ties are just a few of the many deep areas that this doc explores. Was it right for the media to cover his story so much? How much are we, as viewers, to blame for the Tillman family’s lack of privacy? Why did Pat Tillman join the Army in the first place? Was the military doing his family a service when they covered-up the true nature of his death? This extremely intelligent film asks these questions and many more, and will leave you truly questioning them. By the end of the film, you actually care about finding the answers.
Without the family behind it, this movie would have been very cold. By having his own family tell of their predicament, the film becomes truly engaging. Too many documentaries devolve into boring talking heads, but that is definitely not the case here. Interviews, stock footage, and other related images are edited together in such a way that really keeps your attention and tell a coherent, gripping narrative that drives the film’s points forward. This great flow enables the filmmakers to get their points across in an unobtrusive, organic way.
The beginning of the film establishes the mystery of what really happened that fateful April day and then we rewind and look at what Pat Tillman was like as a person, with his family, his teammates, and his fellow Army Rangers reflecting on his life and what drove him to make such a drastic change of lifestyle for the sake of his country. This section makes this movie into a heart-felt character piece, and also gives more weight to the mystery at hand. After the mystery somewhat resolves itself, the film follows the Tillman family as they try to bring to light the men responsible for covering-up the tragic event. This documentary has everything – a great mystery, a heart-felt core, a government cover-up, as well as a frustrating conclusion.
In the past decade, the documentary has seen tremendous growth in both fact-finding as well as storytelling. In this new era of highly competitive documentary filmmaking, a film must truly stand out to be noticed. The Tillman Story is that kind of powerful film and although it has no real cause to rally behind, many will find it illuminating and thought-provoking to the extreme.