When NFL star Pat Tillman was killed in the war in Afghanistan, a controversial cover-up followed. Amir Bar-Lev’s doc shines a light on his family’s fight to expose the truth.
Pat and Kevin Tillman
The Tillman Story: After the attacks of 9/11, NFL player Pat Tillman made a crucial decision: he would put his NFL career on hold—he was a safety for the Arizona Cardinals—and enlist in the U.S. Army to fight for his country. His decision was newsworthy, but Tillman rejected press requests in an attempt to serve under the radar; he didn’t want to be seen as a hero or as a soldier seeking media attention of any kind.
Leaving his high school sweetheart-turned-wife Marie at home in 2002, Pat and his brother Kevin eventually became Army Rangers after participating in the initial invasion of Iraq. In 2003 they were sent to Afghanistan, and on April 22, 2004, Pat was killed in the line of duty near the border of Pakistan. At first, the Army awarded Pat the Silver Star and led his family to believe he was killed by the enemy in an ambush. In truth, Pat was killed by members of his own platoon in a friendly fire attack. Even though the platoon knew immediately what had happened, military brass—allegedly including General Stanley McChrystal and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—chose to implement a full-scale cover-up. In an effort to appropriate Pat as their own special kind of hero, they attempted to go against his wishes for both privacy and the non-military, secular funeral he requested.
The Tillman family did not take this lying down. For the past six years, they have fought to uncover the true facts of Pat’s death, well documented in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Where Men Win Glory. Pat’s mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman, requested all the documents surrounding Pat’s death, and took pains to unredact the full-of-holes, sanctioned accounts. Congressional hearings were held, but to no avail. Dannie has written a book called Boots on the Ground By Dusk, and the family-sanctioned documentary The Tillman Story, by American director Amir Bar-Lev, opens this Friday after a well-received festival season.
The family’s story is one of emotion and insight, with the overarching goal of forcing the military higher-ups—and two presidential administrations—into some sort of accountability. To date, the only sanctions that have been taken were against men in the field that day, when the decisions that led to Pat’s death came down in orders from above.
We sat down with Bar-Lev last week to talk about his film, the family, their determination, and their collective wishes for the film.
Director Amir Bar-Lev
Tribeca: I don’t really know anything about how you made this film. Can you talk about how you became involved? You are from Berkeley—did you know Pat Tillman?
Amir Bar-Lev: No, gosh, no, I didn’t. My partner John Battsek—he runs Passion Pictures, and he and I worked on the last film together—he’s a humongous sports fan, and he brought this story to my attention. He said, “You’re not a big sports fan; you might not be interested in this…” And I took a look at a few things online and said, “If you give this to any other director you work with, I’ll kill you.” That was in the spring of 2007.
We started out by basically stalking the family. We queued up—there were a lot of filmmakers who were interested in telling this story, and narrative filmmakers too. In fact, I shot an outtake that didn’t make it into the film of Marie, Pat’s widow, reading those scripts that had been put on her desk for approval. It’s funny—they made assumptions about Pat that were really ridiculous. There’s a scene where it’s 9/11, and he’s watching on TV, and he starts throwing chairs around the room, and then he gets on his Harley-Davidson and drives into the sunset just to burn off rage. And there’s another scene where his dad is leading the family in prayer on 9/11, which is funny because they are atheists.
Tribeca: So how did you gain the trust of the family? Was Dannie involved in the process, and supportive?
Amir Bar-Lev: I don’t like to speak for the Tillmans, but the process of beginning to work with them was very collaborative… [There were] two arenas: 1) They didn’t want us to engage in hagiography; they didn’t want to see their memories turned into cheap husks of themselves, for lack of a better word. So that was a conversation: What kind of film were we going to make? What were we going to focus on? Was it going to be 10 minutes of the cover-up and 80 minutes of this sort of rosy-hued telling of his life?
The other conversation was: Were we going to dissect Pat? Were we going to make a film that explored his psychology? It’s a matter of degree: obviously, we discussed with them the kind of person he was, but they are a family with a really healthy sense of what’s public and what’s private. Pat asked for privacy in terms of his enlistment; he didn’t discuss his decision with the press, and he asked everyone around him to respect that decision. And they are still true to that.
So we basically agreed to be collaborative in those arenas.
Tribeca: His brother Kevin [who enlisted with Pat, and was with him in Afghanistan] is noticeably absent from interviews in the film.
Amir Bar-Lev: At first Kevin and Richard [the third brother]—neither of them wanted to be in it. But at the last minute, Richard changed his mind. We finished the film without him, and we showed the family the film. We were pleased they liked the film, and Richard was so satisfied with the film he said, “I wish I’d said yes to you.” We said, “Can you get on a plane?” And we literally put him on a red-eye, and he came out…
Richard is integral to the film. The archival piece was already in it [of him speaking vehemently—even cursing—at the funeral], but his interview was added in [in the later draft].
Tribeca: I was going to ask you about Richard’s eulogy at the memorial service, where he is clearly upset with the tone of the service. I don’t really remember that happening.
Amir Bar-Lev: It was reported on—“Emotional words cause networks to scramble…”
Tribeca: What was the biggest challenge in making this film? Were there roadblocks from the military?
Amir Bar-Lev: There’s really nothing in the film that another journalist couldn’t have reported on. And it was shocking to us to see—I mean, there is some investigative journalist involved in what we did, but not much—we couldn’t believe that it hadn’t been reported on! I’m not a big media critic or anything, but it does speak to how thin hard journalists are spread these days. The video reenactment [in the film] I downloaded from Amazon, and I got the unredacted documents from Dannie.
Tribeca: She did the unredacting, right?
Amir Bar-Lev: Yes, she and Stan Goff did. Dannie was ready to give those to anybody. And anybody could have downloaded a PDF of the unredacted document. I couldn’t believe some of the stuff in there that hadn’t ever been looked at! There were a lot of challenges to making this film, but uncovering new facts was not something we did a lot of—we just reported on them.
As far as the military putting up roadblocks, they really didn’t; they didn’t feel like we were a threat to them. They didn’t help us at all, but they didn’t hinder us. I think that’s because they don’t operate the way the films depict them operating—like putting a bullet in my mailbox or saying, “You better not go down that road…” That’s another case of people mistaking movies for reality.
In actuality, they have a team of very good publicists that makes sure that their spin gets disseminated through the mainstream press, and they are wildly successful at it. And they think that a small documentary isn’t going to have an impact on public sentiment.
The scene in the Congressional hearing where those generals basically say the equivalent of, “The dog ate my homework”—that worked. That was how it was reported. The reporting that night was, “Generals apologize to Tillmans for errors in bungling the Tillman case…” It takes a wide berth around the fact that they’ve never admitted to anything deliberate, even to this moment.
Tribeca: My father was a public affairs officer in the Air Force for 21 years…
Amir Bar-Lev: I’d be so curious to know what he thinks. Tell him I paid him a compliment—those guys are really good! When we contacted them [the Army PA office], they were extremely friendly, and said, “Look, we love Pat. We sympathize with the family. We can’t help you, we’re not going to help you.” But at the same time, they let us talk to one guy—I don’t know where they draw the line—they let us talk to Bryan O’Neal [who was with Tillman when he was killed, and is in the film].
Tribeca: And Russell Baer, who is also in the film, is not in the Army anymore, right? He went sort of AWOL after accompanying Pat’s body and Kevin back to the States, but then he did rejoin his platoon.
Amir Bar-Lev: The terrible irony there is that the people who were punished most in the whole platoon were Russ Baer, for kind of going AWOL [after coming back to the States], and the platoon leader, who had vehemently protested splitting up the platoon. He was really hit hard; he was a career guy, West Point guy, brilliant—everybody loved him—and they really derailed him. He received a much sterner punishment than the guys who shot [Pat].
Tribeca: But for what, exactly?
Amir Bar-Lev: For not having control of his whole platoon. But he had said, very clearly: It’s late in the day, we have been parked here for hours and hours, everyone knows we’re here. Now you want to split the platoon? And send them through this narrow chasm?” He kept saying, “Can’t you airlift this vehicle out of here, or let us blow it up?” They said, “We don’t have the air resources,” but then they saw these helicopters flying over them all afternoon, moving Humvees. In the transcripts of the radio communications, you see him getting really almost insubordinate, and yet they threw him under the bus.
Tribeca: The film is a powerful indictment of the military under the previous administration. It’s infuriating, and just so senseless—adding insult to injury in the way they treated Pat’s family. As a documentary filmmaker, is it tough to remain objective when you feel strongly about a subject?
Amir Bar-Lev: I don’t try and remain objective. I sympathize with the family, plainly. I think that what I aspire to, rather than objectivity, is not being a polemicist. And to the degree that there are counter arguments to my own, I try to present them—I did that in My Kid Could Paint That—but in this particular case, the counter argument to telling the truth is not very valid.
I think that every film is different, but I never felt like I had to be objective. I felt like I had to fundamentally make an artistic film, and secondly, [I would not] suppress facts to make an argument. I think that some filmmakers—and I’m not talking about Michael Moore, because I like him and I always feel like people are trying to bash Michael Moore; I don’t include him in this—but other filmmakers, who will remain unnamed, try to suppress counter arguments in order to make a piece of rhetoric, a polemic piece.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from the film? What do you want to happen?
Amir Bar-Lev: The story is not over. Nobody has really been held accountable. The guys who actually shot at Pat were given the same punishment as if they had forgotten to clean their weapons. Personally, though, my ire is directed to the people who continue to cover it up to this day.
Tribeca: Well, it’s war, and there are always going to be terrible mistakes, terrible errors in the middle of chaos. But it’s been compounded here with the cover-up.
Amir Bar-Lev: The people who lied about it should begin by admitting they lied and apologizing to the family. That’s the manly thing to do. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when you ask me what I hope comes from the film.
The fact is that this is not a backwards-looking examination of a single crime for which justice and resolution needs to happen. It’s that, but it’s also—the family from way back in 2006 has always been clear—it’s a mistake to think this is about Pat Tillman. It’s about what we as a country expect from our leaders. Should people be able to get up and lie about really important things without any accountability? The answer, in my mind, is No.