C. S. Lewis once asked, “What can you ever really know of other people's souls - of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands.” The mystery of identity and the choices we make holds the center of Amir Bar-Lev's typically provocative documentary The Tillman Story. It's a story we all think we know by now, and while the film partly re-imparts now-familiar facts, it also consistently reminds us of what we don't know, and what we can perhaps never know, about Pat Tillman, the NFL star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.
The most famous enlisted man in the military at the time of his death, Tillman fiercely protected the reasons behind his enlistment, citing his motivation as being a private decision and not fodder for public consumption (and perhaps public debate). After his untimely death, however, Tillman could not escape becoming a political football, crafted by the military and the U.S. government into a great American hero about whom the facts were simply inconveniences. As people who were there recount in the film, it took only moments after Tillman's death for the cover-up to begin, and Tillman was soon awarded the Silver Star, the nation's third-greatest combat honor, for being shot to death by his fellow soldiers. Retired Special Forces Master Sergeant Stan Goff—who volunteered his services to the Tillman family to get to the bottom of Pat's death and the military response—describes the resulting face-saving efforts and propaganda campaign as the "perception management aspect of war," red, white and blue PR. The full frontal assault included the stage management of Pat's funeral, where his youngest brother Richard felt compelled to tell the assemblage, "This is not a production; it's my brother's service."
In part The Tillman Story is a portrait of a family that would not simply accept the company line. Pat's mother Mary, father Patrick, brother Kevin, and widow Marie all give their perspectives, on the man, his death, the cover-up or all of the above. In particular, Mary emerges as the indomitable force pursuing answers (in vintage footage, Pat recalls how the dogged Mary finished, dead-last, the San Francisco Marathon), though ironically, it is a profanity-punctuated letter from Patrick to the man spearheading the investigation that finally gets the military's attention (public profanity, as we learn, is something of a family tradition for the Tillmans). Bar-Lev's carefully constructed spiralling narrative has its center the story of Pat's formation and family history; the director also presents home-video footage of Pat's unit and military-shot footage of the site of Pat's death to tell the story.
Certainly there's an element of outrage to the film, which notes that only a patsy of sorts—retired Lt. Gen. Phillip Kensinger— received censure as a result of the cover-up, while others (including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) wriggled away during the 2007 House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that serves as the film's climax. The details of the cover-up are, of course, as appalling as they are blatant (Pat's diary was immediately destroyed along with his uniform, for example), but the human element is as strong here as the inhumanity shown to the family by the powers that were. Bar-Lev captures the character of many compelling personalities in Tillman's orbit, from his family to Goff to his brothers in arms Russell Baer and Bryan O'Neal, who were heartbreakingly drawn into the cover-up—and are now vocally repentent. When Goff explains, "The death didn't just belong to the family," he's right. It belonged to his friends, the Army, the NFL, the Bush Administration, and a hungry media. It's no mistake that the film's (anti-)resolving image is a statue of Tillman, frozen in time as a heroic but Sphynx-like riddle.
Sony admirably delivers a solid Blu-ray edition of The Tillman Story, though it's not a film that cries out for the BD treatment. Due to the variety of visual materials Bar-Lev uses, the image quality is, in effects, highly variable, but on the other hand, the transfer is perfectly accurate to the source, so one couldn't ask for more. Certainly the interview footage shot by Bar-Lev is impeccable by hi-def standards, and the image perfectly replicates what was projected theatrically. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is decidely front-heavy, but the film doesn't need more than it delivers sonically, which is clear voices.
The sole bonus feature here is an audio commentary with director Amir Bar-Lev. Fresh from his voluminous promotional duties, the ever-sharp Bar-Lev offers wall-to-wall screen-specific insight about his strategies for structuring the film and his own take on the players involved in the story.
This worthwhile 2010 documentary will appeal mightily to enthuiasts of the reality genre, especially in this hi-def edition.
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