Pat Tillman’s family says “fuck” a lot. And who can blame them? Pat’s youngest brother, at the memorial service for the fallen NFL-star-turned-soldier, follows Maria Shriver’s “Pat is with God now” rhetoric with, “Pat would want me to say this: He’s not with God, he’s fucking dead.” A year later, Pat Tillman Sr. writes a blistering letter to the military brass who continued to stonewall the investigation into his son’s death signed, “Fuck you…and yours.” Such is the seething flavor of director Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story (open today at select theaters), which paints a striking portrait of Pat Tillman’s devoted and outraged family’s search for the truth behind his death in eastern Afghanistan in April 2004.
The footage and documentation do perhaps more than either Tillman book (one by his mother, the other by Jon Krakauer, telling Tillman’s wife’s story) to walk through the life and death of the country’s highest profile war-fighter. For not only do we get the emotions and efforts of the entire clan (Krakauer didn’t speak with his mom, for example) but we see what unfolded in pictures, whether it’s home video of Pat’s Ranger outfit, rugged footage taken the day after he was killed, or evidence of the reams of redacted documents his mother pored over for years—only to be served up an anemic congressional oversight hearing.
Full of singeing interviews with family and the few soldiers who sought justice the film blows open the “Tillman story,” the government and media-fueled line of propaganda that painted Tillman as a hero lost in the fog of war. The film makes clear that we only know that Tillman’s death was a negligent fratricide with a cover-up reaching high up on the national masthead because he had a family that simply wouldn’t back down. As his brother put it, the military picked the wrong family to mess with.
The documentary gives us what we the public want when it comes to heroes—a deeper look at someone who was so instantly an icon of war. Though he was deified in death under false pretenses and for political gain—and he specifically told the military he didn’t want a military burial or any military involvement in his death—he, and his family, turned out to be exactly what America needed, because they take absolutely no bullshit, from Shriver, Donald Rumsfeld, anyone. And Tillman’s last words? The soldier with him at the time poignantly recalls how Tillman saved his life even while his screams couldn’t spare his own. To his buddies but 40 yards away who were unloading artillery into his chest and head he screamed, “I’m fucking Pat Tillman, why are you shooting at me? I’m fucking Pat Tillman!”