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September 5, 2010

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The death of an army poster boy

PAT Tillman was many things to many people: a son, brother, husband, friend and, as an American football player for Arizona State University and the Arizona Cardinals, a star who drew cheers for his exciting, physical style.

But once he gave up his professional football career to join the Army Rangers in 2002 and then was fatally shot in Afghanistan in 2004, he became something else entirely, something larger than life through his death: a symbol of American patriotism, a poster boy, a crucial part of the government's message. And that turned him into something he wasn't.

"The Tillman Story" attempts to get to the bottom of what happened the day he was killed by following the exhaustive investigative efforts of Tillman's family -- namely, his mother, Dannie -- and, in the process, allows us to get to know who the man himself really was.

Director Amir Bar-Lev, whose previous documentaries include the smart, suspenseful "My Kid Could Paint That," approaches "The Tillman Story" as a bit of a mystery, as well. Tension builds as details emerge and the disparity between lie and truth becomes more glaring. Sometimes it's little things, like the moment Tillman and his brother, Kevin, decided to enlist -- not immediately after September 11, 2001, as had been depicted, but six months later.

Sometimes the discrepancies are galling, as in the documented evidence that Tillman didn't want the very military funeral he was given; his widow, Marie, describes being forced to comply with the wishes of military higher-ups.

And sometimes there's just flat-out deception, as in the military's attempts to cover up the fact that Tillman died as a result of friendly fire, something that was known a week after his death but didn't come out until some five weeks had passed. A memo written by then-Major General Stanley McChrystal and leaked to The Associated Press shows that knowledge of this possibility went all the way to the White House, but it was kept quiet for a while to avoid "public embarrassment."

Not all of this is new. Books have been written on Tillman's death, including one by his mother. But Bar-Lev thoroughly and methodically lays it all out and lets the information speak for itself.

He takes interviews with the men who were there that day and reams of documents (the military tried to overload the Tillman family with over 3,000 pieces of paper, many of their details redacted) and presents them in a clear-eyed, streamlined way. Most important, he lets the emotion shine through on its own without overdramatization. Obviously, there is enough inherent heartache and frustration here.

But getting to know the Tillman family -- and through them, Pat -- provides inspiration. At the funeral, with all its proper military pomp and circumstance, youngest brother Richard hopped on stage in a T-shirt and jeans, holding a beer and dropping F-bombs; "He's not with God, he's (expletive) dead," he matter-of-factly asserted.

Dannie, meanwhile, tirelessly made phone calls and pored over documents filled with jargon intended to intimidate her. And middle-brother Kevin, who with Tillman on that fateful day, has only spoken once publicly about his brother's death -- before a congressional committee -- but he did so eloquently and forcefully.

Through their memories and anecdotes, we learn of a young man who loved to laugh, take risks and goof off with his younger brothers -- a truly decent man but not the saint the government's spin suggested. But he was also a reader and a thinker -- not what's expected from stereotypes associated with football players or soldiers.

We may never know exactly who shot Pat Tillman on that ridge in Afghanistan or why, but we have a better idea of who he was.


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