I have a rule: No war movies. Or TV shows or HBO specials or even the nightly news, at least when coverage turns to the conflict in Iraq or Afghanistan. Avoiding the topic is essential to my mental health, especially during my husband’s deployment to Baghdad this year. No one explains why better than writer and military spouse Jehanne Dubrow, who catalogues a list of celluloid offenders in the poem “Against War Movies,” from her collection Stateside. She confesses what I’m not brave enough to admit:
He’s burned or gassed, he’s shot between the eyes,
Or shoots himself when he comes home again.
Each movie is a training exercise,
A scenario for how my husband dies.
So I very warily approached The Tillman Story, the new documentary about theTillman family’s quest to uncover the circumstances surrounding the 2004 death of football-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, which opens in late August. It’s the kind of film I would normally avoid, but the director, Amir Bar-Lev, is a family acquaintance, and when I saw Amir almost two years ago I was intrigued by the working title. At that time, he was calling it I’m Pat Fucking Tillman—reportedly Tillman’s last words, as he realized that soldiers from his own Army unit had shot him, fatally, during a firefight in Afghanistan. (Ultimately, the title was deemed too provocative.)
Amir’s last documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, about a young art prodigy, exhaustively explored both sides in the argument over whether the 4-year-old featured had actually herself created the paintings attributed to her. In this case, that level of thoroughness would feel redundant, because Tillman’s riches-to-rags tale has already been documented so extensively. Indeed, from the post-9/11 moment he gave up his multimillion dollar NFL contract to sign up with the Army Rangers, he was the military’s most famous enlisted man. He even received a letter from then-President George W. Bush congratulating him on his decision to serve.
Bar-Lev wisely decides to tell his story from the point of view of Tillman’s unconventional family. Tillman’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, suspects soon after Pat’s memorial service that her son was killed by friendly fire, despite the Army’s insistence that he was the victim of a Taliban ambush who saved the lives of his fellow soldiers by taking the bullet. Her persistence leads to two military investigations, a federal investigation, and ultimately a congressional investigation at which top generals and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified.
Dannie knew nothing could bring her son back, she admits; she just wanted those accountable for what she calls a cover-up to be held responsible. “You don’t want to believe the worst” about those in charge, she says, but adds later: “What they said happened didn’t happen. You have to set the record straight.” Her strong stance puts her in an unusual position for a mother, especially a military mom. The Army pushed to position her son as a hero deserving of the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for valor. But Dannie wanted answers before she would acquiesce, because she was tortured by the idea that her son was being used as a recruiting tool.
Bar-Lev’s saga tracking her search for those answers is persuasive and embarrassing to the Army and the Department of Defense. But this is no typical war movie. It’s a thoughtful and nuanced story about a mother and son’s mutual devotion, a fresh take on relationships that spring from wartime tragedy, and an important lesson for today’s military families.
Pat had enlisted in the Army Rangers against Dannie’s wishes, and she learned little about the military during his service. But after Pat’s death, Dannie threw herself into the task of understanding Army culture and practices to piece together what had happened to her son. She spent endless hours on the phone, studied ballistics, and taught herself to decode the hieroglyphics of Army documents handed over to appease her, including six binders of redacted investigative interviews, maps, and reports.
At first, Dannie is lost in this alien universe, lacking the language or knowledge of its customs. I can relate to this. As a onetime outsider to the military, I have often been stymied by its ways. Its indecipherable lexicon induces panic attacks in this erstwhile English major. In the early days of my marriage, for example, when I was trying to find my way to my husband’s office on our American military base in Japan, helpful sailors offered me a series of acronyms: “Is he at NAVFAC? NAVCOMTELSTA? COMFAIRWESTPAC?” I could barely understand the question, much less proffer a coherent reply. In the end, a kind soul simply showed me photos of emblems for the local squadrons, and I pointed to the patch that my husband wore on his flight suit.
Dannie also finds her way with aid from others. She connects with a larger community of military families, chiefly a retired Special Forces soldier and military blogger named Stan Goff, who helps her fill in the holes of the redacted documents. As she reconstructs the route of Pat’s final convoy through an Afghan canyon and speaks to eyewitnesses to his death, she becomes ever more determined to correct the narrative for Pat’s sake. “If they knew anything about my son, they wouldn’t have done what they did,” she insists.
Pat Tillman is a fully realized character, both man and soldier, in this documentary. He’s a fan of Emerson and Chomsky, an atheist who was discovered reading the Book of Mormon, and a champion of the underdog who “scooped up” and looked after an inexperienced, frail private in his unit. He tells a lovely story of his mother coming in “dead last” in the San Francisco marathon, and how that taught him the lesson of persistence. Other people speak about him of in the past tense, but the video footage of his football days is so recent that its immediacy is startling. Because his mischievous glance and wry smile continually cause the viewer to wonder what he’s really thinking, it’s hard to remember he died six years ago. Then again, it’s hard to believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still going on, and that some stages, like the one recounted in this film, are distant enough to be one generation’s history.
Like Dannie Tillman, I’m nervous when I hear the word “hero.” Overuse can strip it of meaning, or bring comfort where discomfort would ultimately serve a greater purpose. More than anything I’ve seen, The Tillman Story delves into these nuances and complications. Throughout the film, Dannie is revealed as a fierce seeker of the truth, recounting how hard she worked during her boys’ upbringing to instill that value in them. So it makes sense when she insists that lying about Pat’s death diminishes his true heroism, and that he is no less a hero for having fallen victim to U.S. Army soldiers instead of the Taliban.
Army officials don’t dispute this, even after they concede publicly that Pat was a victim of fratricide. Still, in the closing scene of the documentary, Dannie intimates that she feels like a failure because no one was formally held accountable for the cover-up. “I don’t think there’s much more that I can do,” she says, resigned to the outcome. “Now it’s just about moving on, and bringing [Pat] with us.” If war movies are indeed training exercises, I’ll take my lessons from Dannie Tillman.