Watch just a few seconds of the footage the major news outlets ran nearly nonstop in the weeks following Pat Tillman’s death and you’ll get a crash course in Mythmaking 101. Flags wave. Slo-mo footage of the pro football player turned Army Ranger is intercut with still photographs from his life. Stirring music swells, while a somber-voiced narrator intones that Tillman was an “unflinching patriot” who gave his life for his country. It’s the narrative that was propagated by George W. Bush when he said, “Pat Tillman loved the game of football. Yet he loved America even more.”
Did he? The reality is, only Tillman’s family knows why he gave up his football career to join the Army, and only a few of the troops present on the day he died know the exact circumstances of his death. A new documentary, The Tillman Story, questions our need to idolize Tillman, and our desire for tidy answers about why he decided to enlist in the Army and what happened the day he died. Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev scrupulously avoids the sort of speculation and psychoanalyzing that the media engaged in following Tillman’s death, yet he employs some of the same techniques as the news reports he criticizes. All of which raises a question: can a film that aims to counteract propaganda avoid becoming propaganda itself?
We are used to a certain degree of artifice in works of fiction—art, Picasso said, is the lie that tells the truth—but from their earliest days documentaries have manipulated facts and images just as much as narrative films. In 1922’s Nanook of the North, filmmaker Robert Flaherty staged scenes, demanded theInuit actors hunt with traditional spears instead of the guns they normally used, and even changed the name of the lead character (Allakariallak of the North just didn’t have the same ring to it). In the ensuing years, documentarians began using vérité techniques with the aim of presenting a more “realistic” view of their subjects. The handheld camerawork, fuzzy sound quality, and lack of narration gave vérité films a patina of authenticity, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t every bit as manipulative as their more polished counterparts.
“It’s impossible for a film not to have an opinion,” says Bar-Lev, who also directed Fighter and My Kid Could Paint That, “and the best films are the ones that allow room for the audience to decide whether they agree with the perspective of the film.” Bar-Lev traces the evolution of the Tillman myth from the first reports of his death, attributed to rebel fighters, to the revelation that he was killed by friendly fire and his family’s attempts to ascertain the circumstances of his death. But rather than uncovering any answers, he’s more interested in exploring our need to lionize Tillman.
Bar-Lev unapologetically paints Tillman’s family with the same heroic colors he accuses the media of bestowing on Tillman himself. He doesn’t question the family’s assertions that the military tried to cover up the truth behind Tillman’s death. “The story is about a family that’s looking for justice,” he says. “They want the people responsible for this criminal negligence [in Tillman’s death] to be held accountable, and they want who Pat was to be affirmed and to be recognized, and to have his legacy not be something he would’ve been revolted by. I’m totally, unabashedly on their side on both those things, and the film is made in order to help that cause.”
With its somber narration (by the actor Josh Brolin), rousing soundtrack, and smooth camerawork, The Tillman Story looks and sounds more like a newsmagazine segment than either of Bar-Lev’s previous films. “This is definitely a more conventional film,” he says. “We eschewed anything too unconventional in order to give the film the fighting chance for our hopefully very subversive notions to get across. But I don’t think we did the things I’m accusing the mainstream media of.” Whether the film gets closer to the truth or adds another layer of obfuscation is up to audiences to decide. But it reminds us that no movie, news segment, or non-fiction book presents an unvarnished version of reality.
Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 11 to reflect that actor Josh Brolin, and not James Brolin, is the narrator of this film.