| The life and death of professional football player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman is thoroughly covered in this documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev (“My Kid Could Paint That”), written by Mark Monroe (“The Cove”) and narrated by Josh Brolin.
Tillman, the oldest of three sons, introduces himself in archival footage as a safety for Arizona State University. Despite being only 5 feet 11 inches tall, he earned a reputation as a bruising tackler and in his senior year was named Pac-10 defensive player of the year. He was also an academic All-American with a 3.8 GPA.
Tillman played 60 games in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals from 1998 to 2001. He turned down a contact extension of $3.6 million over three years to enlist in the military for a three-year stint along with his younger brother, Kevin, in June 2002.
He didn’t want his reasons for leaving the NFL to fight for his country to be made public. The movie offers a strong reaction to 9/11 as a clue to his motivation.
Tillman viewed the American flag as a symbol of freedom. With a strong family heritage of military service, he dropped everything and felt his true sense of purpose could be achieved in combat.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent Tillman a personal letter thanking him for signing up and advised the military brass to “keep an eye on” this courageous young man.
On April 22, 2004, Tillman, age 27, was killed during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The initial reports falsely claimed that he was shot during an intense firefight and died saving his platoon.
He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for valor and hailed as a national hero. Several weeks later, Tillman’s family learned the shocking truth that he was killed by friendly fire. The family felt outrage and anger for a political cover-up used as a propaganda tool to encourage recruiting.
The documentary does a fine job of laying out the very personal story. The use of home videos, actual military investigation footage and interviews with fellow soldiers brings to light what happened. It gives the military chain of command and the Bush administration a black eye. By making Tillman a poster boy, it spins a private matter into a public spectacle.
This case of fratricide is not an isolated occurrence. The documentary doesn’t go far enough into exposing the increased percentage of casualties from friendly fire in relation to other wars.
The real stars on camera are Tillman’s parents, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, a schoolteacher, and Patrick K. Tillman Sr., a lawyer. They waged a determined fight to have the culprits punished for sweeping the truth under the rug.
The media circus following Tillman’s death included snide remarks demeaning the Tillman family for being atheists. A congressional hearing, where Kevin spoke publicly for the first time, is portrayed as theatrical wrestling with nobody held accountable.
This important documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize (won by “Restrepo”). Audiences will feel a sense of heartbreaking empathy for the Tillman family.
Further controversy has arisen with the MPAA giving the film a restricted rating for the abundant use of the “F” word. Young teenagers under 17 considering the pros and cons of military service must be accompanied by a guardian. If this important demographic gets the opportunity to see the riveting film, they may be persuaded to pursue another career path rather than enlisting after exposure to the “gung-ho” locker room mentality of trigger-happy recruits anxious to prove their masculinity.
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Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"