The Tillman Story director Amir Bar-Lev

The Tillman Story director Amir Bar-Lev

Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev made his feature documentary debut in 2000 with Fighter, a lively road-trip picture about two Holocaust survivors with divergent opinions about the meaning of their respective experiences. He followed up with My Kid Could Paint That, a popular documentary about the controversy surrounding pre-adolescent art prodigy Marla Olmstead. Bar-Lev’s latest is The Tillman Story, about the polarizing life and death of NFL-star-turned-Army-ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan and subsequently became the focus of a governmental cover-up. Bar-Lev recently spoke with The A.V. Club about what his movies have in common, and about what the Tillman saga in particular has to say about the state of the media.

The A.V. Club: Though the subjects are entirely different, The Tillman Story has a lot in common with My Kid Could Paint That, in that they’re both about how people construct narratives.

Amir Bar-Lev: And actually, my first film, Fighter, shares that theme too, but with a different approach. I don’t know. Maybe I’m stuck in a creative rut. [Laughs.] Or maybe it’s just the lens I see things through. I did study comparative religion before I studied film in college. But also I think that if you look deep enough into any story these days, you’ll always confront the issue of constructing a narrative. I mean, we’re surrounded by constructed narratives. Maybe we always have been. So much has been mediated by storytellers of one kind or another.

One other thing I think the two have in common is religion, really. These are like modern myths. Marla Olmstead was seen as this mystic medium, who by virtue of her young age was channeling some inaccessible truth that we lose as adults. People see Pat Tillman as… I mean, I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with people I didn’t end up interviewing, people who, it was clear to me, knew him somewhat peripherally, and spoke about him as though he was Jesus Christ. I had a guy actually get embarrassed, because he was a religious guy himself, and he caught himself saying “Pat died for all of us.” You know? Pat died for all of us. And I think that’s part of it, the idea of this sacrifice that serves as a message for the rest of us. At a time when everybody was talking about collective sacrifice, Pat actually did something.

Elevating him to this mythic status is a way of having a bit of his mystique rub off on you. The only problem with Pat Tillman in that regard is that one of his greatest qualities was his self-confidence. And I think self-confidence is a trait that’s hard for people to truly, genuinely admire, because it intimidates them. Most of us lack self-confidence on some level, and here was a guy who was supremely self-confident. I think people have a hard time admiring him for that, but instead have to share some maudlin fascination with his demise. 

AVC: The movie focuses a lot on how people on the right have exploited Pat Tillman in various ways. But do you think the left has appropriated him too, to an extent?

ABL: Yeah, that’s true, but I don’t think there’s a total parity there. I actually catch myself sometimes, because the way I talk about it makes it sound as though there’s parity. I’m trying to be more careful about that lately, because it’s certainly not the case. But the left does have its myths about Pat Tillman. First of all, he was denigrated when he enlisted. The main thing you have to remember from both the left and right is that Pat Tillman never said word one about why he enlisted. So anything anybody thinks about his decision to enlist is something they themselves projected on him. That’s why we have that silent moment at the beginning of the film, to kind of underline that.

The left had those constructed narratives too, making assumptions about his meatheadedness or red-bloodedness or whatever. But also, after his death, if you take two seconds, you’ll find the most outrageous conspiracy theories online. About how he was in cahoots with Noam Chomsky, and how together they were going to blow the lid off the whole peak-oil crisis. I mean, just nonsense, you know?

We have a shot in the film which I think is one of the keys to understanding the whole thing. It’s a T-shirt on which somebody has scrawled an impromptu note, at the memorial service. It says “Our Hero,” but instead of underlining “Hero,” the guy’s underlined “Our.” I think that’s really the key. And it comes from what we talked about before, that whole sort of stolen-virtue thing. Everybody wanted a piece of Pat Tillman. And it becomes quite maudlin, because in some psychological way, he’s worth more to America dead than alive. And his family feels that. As his dad said, sometimes it’s a fine line between celebrating somebody’s life and celebrating their death. 

AVC: There’s a lot of rage directed toward the military for redacting documents and trying to control the story. But you focus just as much rage toward the media for taking those statements at face value. 

ABL: Yeah, I was just thinking about this. I’ll tell you about something that happened two days ago, that made me say to my wife that the longer I’m connected to this story, the angrier I get at the press. And the more I feel the press shares in a lot of the culpability. The Tillman family doesn’t like doing a lot of press. They were somewhat reluctant to do our film. It took some convincing. And in terms of publicizing the film, they just want to be consistent. They totally support the film and were there to celebrate with us as families and everything in public settings, like at Sundance when it premièred. And they have been doing some press, but they don’t want to do a lot of press. They don’t want to be our props. They don’t want to be anybody’s props. Anyway, the short version is the L.A. Times printed a column by Mary Tillman about Stanley McChrystal, and they chose as the headline, “I Told You So.” Which is a really childish thing for her to be made to say, and counter to everything I know about her, and every disciplined way that she’s tried to shape her message. It’s never been this sort of childish “I told you so” thing.

Six years later, and it’s the same story. Not only does the press put words in your mouth, they put words in your mouth that would mortify you. And that’s what they did to Pat Tillman from the beginning, turning him into somebody he wasn’t, you know? Ultimately, this is a story about how nature abhors a vacuum. We storytellers, the press… basically, the culture abhors a story vacuum. And Pat refused to say anything about why he enlisted. Refused to grandstand. Refused to provide a narrative. People begrudgingly complimented him for it, but they couldn’t help themselves. They had to supply a narrative, the press.

AVC: Do you think it’s always been this way and we’re just noticing it more now, or has journalism taken a bad turn over the past 10 years or so?

ABL: You know, I don’t think I can necessarily speak to that, because I don’t know the history as well as I should. But I will say that it does appear to me that investigative journalists are spread very, very thin. And y’know, there’s precious little investigative journalism in this film. People keep asking me, “What surprised you? What did you find out that nobody else knew?” What surprised me more than anything was that whenever I found things that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, I didn’t dig them up in some gumshoe kind of way. I just downloaded them. You can get all the un-redacted documents with one click. You can download a PDF from one of the military websites. And as far as the video from Afghanistan, we got that from Amazon. I mean, I got it a number of different ways, but at one point, the best quality stuff I could get, I ordered from Amazon. So you’re watching this stuff that’s absolutely shocking, and you can’t believe that nobody has reported on it, because it’s right there in black and white.

AVC: Do you think of what you do as journalism?

ABL: [Pause.] Yeah. I think documentary filmmaking is a form of journalism. There are a lot of different forms that journalism takes. But I think documentary is closer to what a non-fiction novelist does. Like Norman Mailer. In other words, there’s room for, you know… to shape the story. I think I have a little more leeway. I think documentary filmmakers have a little more leeway in terms of being front-and-center with their opinions than do hard journalists and investigative journalists.

AVC: What sort of documentaries and filmmakers are you drawn to?

ABL: I’m no different than most documentary filmmakers in what I like. I like the Maysles brothers. Frederick Wiseman. I like Michael Moore’s films. I like the films that are opinionated, and I like the films that are more fly-on-the-wall, observational. I like to study films and see to what degree the filmmakers are in there, or to what degree they’re not in there. I like Werner Herzog’s films. So my answer is that I kind of run the gamut. I think most people do.

You know what I don’t like, are films that have less artistry and are more just a polemic. And unfortunately, they do extraordinarily well at the box office, and give documentaries a bad name, in a way. To your question about whether I’m a journalist, it’s a complex issue, but for myself, the art comes first and the journalism comes second. They’re both important, but you have to make a great film first of all.