The Tillman Story

The Tillman Story tells the story of Pat Tillman, who left a career as an NFL player to serve in the U.S. Army and who was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan. It also tells the story of Tillman’s family, who struggled against a government cover-up to find out the truth about his death. Although the film contains no new revelations, it does give an interesting and moving portrait of Tillman and his family. Tillman comes across as a complex character: a jock who liked to read books, an atheist who studied the world’s religions, a risk-taker and thrill-seeker who was also thoughtful and considerate of others. The most striking thing about Tillman, however, was his belief in keeping obligations. We learn that after his tour in Iraq, the Army offered Tillman the opportunity to return to civilian life, but he insisted on serving the full term for which he enlisted. This same sense of obligation seems to motivate the entire Tillman family in their quest to find out the truth about his death and its cover-up by the military, in the face of an uncooperative government.

The Tillman Story is not really an anti-war film, although it does mention that Tillman thought the Iraq War was illegal, and that he read Chomsky. The film does, however, paint an unflattering picture of the military. Immediately after Tillman died, the Army began covering up what happened. They lied to the media and to Tillman’s family. They invented a story about Tillman engaging in a firefight with the Taliban. They used Tillman’s death as propaganda for the war. They even posthumously awarded Tillman a Silver Star medal that he didn’t earn. Interestingly, the film tells how Tillman expressed disgust at the staged “rescue” of Jessica Lynch. Ironically he himself was later used in a similar campaign of media deception.

The Army grudgingly admitted after some time that his death was actually a “fratricide”. They became increasingly uncooperative as the Tillmans asked more questions. The film contains a radio interview with an Army colonel who mocks the Tillmans’ desire to know the truth about their son’s death. The Tillmans’ efforts culminate in a Congressional hearing. We see a group of generals, along with Donald Rumsfeld, dissembling in front of the committee, repeatedly answering “I can’t recall” to questions about the cover-up. The Congressmen listen and then thank these people for their cooperation. The Tillmans are left without answers to their questions.

The Tillman Story will serve to dispel any illusions that people may have about the military being an honorable institution or about our government caring about its citizens.

A digression: The film mentions that Tillman, who was 5’11” (the same height I am, as it so happens), was considered short for the NFL. This made me realize why I prefer college football to the NFL: the players look more like regular people.

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