The Tillman Story

Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (left) is interested in myths – modern-day myths. His riveting documentary “The Tillman Story” opens on August 20. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bar-Lev to discuss this important new film.

Pat Tillman was a well-known, and well paid, football player for the Arizona Cardinals. In 2002 he left football to join the Army Rangers. On April 22, 2004 he was killed fighting in Afghanistan.

The official report on Tillman’s death said he was killed fighting the Taliban while he charged up a hill yelling, “Let’s take the fight to the enemy,” a claim which, Bar-Lev told me, just happened to coincide with President Bush’s talking point, “Let’s fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them here.” Tillman was awarded the silver star and the country was told a myth that it needed to hear. “He’s almost like a Jesus Christ figure, who dies for the rest of us and who sacrifices for the rest of us,” Bar-Lev explained concerning the image that the media and public have projected onto Tillman. “He becomes like a proxy for the rest of us who all talked about collective duty and shared sacrifice after 9/11 and then forgot about it after three or four weeks. We need him to have done what he did for these grandiose reasons,” Bar-Lev continued.

Five weeks later the official story changed. The military said Tillman was killed by an American bullet during the confusion of battle termed “the fog of war.” The military said Tillman would still keep his silver star for his bravery. They hoped this would be a footnote and that any questions about Tillman’s death would go away.

The government did not count on the determination of the Tillman family to uncover the truth, which the government tried to conceal while simultaneously having the hubris to use Tillman’s death as “all American hero, football star” propaganda to promote the war. Bar-Lev pointed out that Tillman, “never said anything about why he enlisted. He never contributed to the narrative…He’s a kind of a silent guy who we project our stories onto.” Among other things, the family uncovered strong evidence that the government and military knew all along that Tillman was killed by his own men, yet lied, saying that he was killed by the enemy. Bar-Lev added, “There’s two kind of myths there. The family was interested in undoing both to the degree they could: getting to the bottom of who he (Pat) was and getting to the bottom of how he died.”

“The Tillman Story” has been expertly edited balancing three story threads: Tillman’s biography, his family’s search for the truth about his death and the public and media’s lionization of Pat Tillman. The three strands inform and enhance one another, creating a film that is a compelling, observant and infuriating story about the myths that we sometimes need to create and hear. As Stan Goffs, a retired special opps soldier interviewed in the documentary, says, “If you want the public to co-sign something, you have to give them something to co-sign.”

The Tillman Story, director Amir Bar-Lev,
Weinstein Company, 94 minutes


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on August 18, 2010, in Documentary, New. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. In his “The Fog of War” interview with Jason Guerrasio, Amir Bar-Lev, the director of “The Tillman Story,” said: “… there’s been no culpability on the second half of this tragedy, which is the higher ups trying to cover it up. … to borrow a football metaphor, they [the Tillman family] ran the ball 99 yards over four years time, they handed it off at the one-yard line to Congress and they fumbled it….”

    Shortly after Sundance, Bar-Lev emailed me that “he was pretty hard on the Democratic Congress in his film.” True, his film does portray Congressman Waxman’s Oversight Committee as ineptly failing to get answers from the top military leadership during their hearing.

    However, Bar-Lev’s film missed the ”untold story” that both the Democratic Congress and the Obama Presidency have intentionally protected General Stanley McChrystal from scrutiny and punishment for his central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. This cover-up was a thoroughly bi-partisan affair. It wasn’t just a case of the Bush administration and the Army stonewalling the Democratic Congress. Congress didn’t just “fumble” the ball, they threw the game.

    Five years ago, Pat Tillman’s family were handed a tarnished Silver Star. It was a travesty of justice that President Obama and the Senate promoted General McChrystal to the Army’s highest rank, and handed him his fourth star.

    It’s not surprising that after their initial cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death fell apart, Army officers and the Bush administration lied to protect their careers. But after they took control of both Houses of Congress in 2006, the Democrats (including Congressman Waxman, Senator Levin, Senator Webb, and Senator McCain) could have gone after those responsible. Or at least not promoted them twice!

    Just before the 2006 mid-term elections, Kevin Tillman published his eloquent letter, “After Pat’s Birthday”. Kevin had hoped a Democratic Congress would bring accountability back to our country. But, just as with warrantless wiretapping and torture, those responsible for the cover-up of his brother’s friendly-fire death have never been held accountable for their actions.

    I’ve just posted my 160 page “book”, “The [Untold] Tillman Story” – President Obama and the Bi-Partisan Congressional Whitewash of General Stanley McChrystal’s Cover-up of Pat Tillman’s Friendly-Fire Death, at and

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