The title for Amir Bar-Lev’s well-researched, deeply moving documentary about Pat Tillman is just fine as it is, since the “story” part of The Tillman Story refers in part to the attempts to turn the “friendly fire” death of the former NFL star and Army ranger into pro-enlistment myth-making. But one of Bar-Lev’s earlier titles would’ve been just as good: I’m Pat _______ Tillman. That title alluded to Tillman’s reported last words: “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!,” shouted repeatedly from the hilltop toward his overheated comrades, roughly 40 yards away. The old title also references the 3,000-word report the Tillman family received from the military, which had so many names and places redacted that it took years for the Tillmans to fill in the blanks and find out exactly how they’d been lied to. Mostly though, the old title, like the new one, speaks to the way people on both the left and the right (but mostly the right) have tried to project their own beliefs onto a man who kept his close to the vest.
Bar-Lev (who previously made the excellent My Kid Could Paint That) employs the conventional documentary format of talking heads, file footage, and insert shots, but he assembles it skillfully, presenting the Tillman The Patriot narrative first, then going back to show a more complicated man, whose real reasons for abandoning his lucrative football career to enlist in the military have never been fully revealed. Along the way, Bar-Lev blasts the media for merely parroting what the authorities tell them, and effectively accuses a succession of investigative bodies of entering outright, obvious lies into the public record. Most of the material in this movie has been seen, heard, or read before, but never with this level of useful illustration. For example, words can’t properly describe the rousing footage of Tillman’s younger brother speaking at Pat’s memorial service. After John McCain and other political and military leaders spoke about Pat being in “a better place,” the younger Tillman took the stage with a pint of ale, thanked everyone for coming, then said, “By the way, Pat isn’t with God, he’s fuckin’ dead. He wasn’t religious.” In the propaganda-filled realms of politics, sports, and the military, that kind of no-bullshit-allowed truth feels cathartic. No wonder the Tillman family has spent much of the last 10 years fighting for it.