FILM REVIEW: Absurd Conspiracy Theories Abound in Agenda-Driven 'Tillman Story'

Call me fussy, but I prefer that my conspiracies and cover-ups actually involve conspiracies and cover-ups. The Tillman Story, a new leftist documentary on football player turned Army Airborne Ranger turned friendly fire casualty turned symbol of…something…posits a massive conspiracy to do…something…and an enormous cover-up of…something…but never quite explains what. However, there are lots of ominous shots of George Bush and Karl Rove, so we can somehow gather that whatever it is is, in some way, all Bushitler’s fault.

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This is a bad film, both in its execution and its intent. As a lawyer, it insults my intelligence. As a veteran, it insults my professionalism. As an audience member, it failed me as a film. Pat Tillman, first seen in footage sitting nearly silently in a studio, begins the film as a cipher and ends as a cipher. I know little more about the man or his motivations than I did coming in. All I know is that I could not wait for it to be over.

This over-praised documentary is based on the premise that there was an enormous, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, which is a problem for the filmmaker since it is clear there is no giant, mysterious conspiracy surrounding the death of Pat Tillman. The filmmakers cannot explain who conspired, or what they conspired to do. Was there a cover-up? Of what? The film desperately wants there to be one, as does the family – perhaps that would give them the story the producers need and generate the meaning the family wants. But, as the film demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt, there isn’t one. This is a story of mistakes, not malice.

Pat Tillman died in a tragic battlefield accident. That happens – young men, powerful weapons, and “the fog of war” all combine to make fratricide a terrible and ever-present reality of infantry combat. I know nothing about the circumstances of Tillman's death other than what the film showed (including several instances where the camera focused on Army investigation documents that revealed information the filmmakers did not highlight). But what the film shows makes it clear that there are no “unanswered questions.”

Since the film presumes to stand on its own I have taken it at its word and report only what the film and its accompanying publicity materials show. There is plenty of speculation out there in cyberspace, most of it numbingly stupid, and there are at least two Army investigations, one which recognized the failure to initially get the family accurate information about the circumstances of Tillman’s death.

The film reports that Tillman’s patrol was ordered split into two elements so one element could recover a broken vehicle. Whether this was a tactically sound decision is unclear – none of the officers in the chain of command were interviewed, though a private states he did not like the order. In any case, Tillman’s element went first through a canyon. The second followed. Tillman’s element heard explosions and firing from back in the canyon. Tillman led his team (accompanied by a friendly Afghan militia fighter) up a steep hill to go back and assist, even asking to drop his body armor so he could go faster (The squad leader denied his request).

At the crest of the hill, a hummer from the second element saw Tillman’s team and misidentified them. They fired, killing the Afghan militia fighter. Tillman attempted to stop the fire by standing up and shouting. He was hit in the head, apparently by machine gun rounds if the film is to be believed, and was killed. It is unclear whether the vehicle was moving or stopped at the time, or if the shooters had dismounted.

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Those are the sad facts of the incident itself. However, the early confusion over what happened out there on that remote battlefield sparked the entire conspiracy meme. Initially, the family was told Tillman died heroically charging the enemy. Tillman was issued a Silver Star almost immediately. Then, about a month later, but after a memorial ceremony where Tillman’s heroism was praised, they were told he was killed by friendly fire. This demonstrates why it is so critical not to discuss such matters until all the facts are absolutely clear and documented – that is the least America owes the families of the fallen.

There’s a truism among soldiers – repeated in the film during an interview with a general punished for his part in the initial confusion – that the first reports are always wrong. They were here. And it is understandable why. Tillman was charging toward what he thought to be the enemy. He did die bravely even if as the result of a tragic mistake. Apparently the producers never played “Telephone” as kids; they can either not understand, or not accept, that things in the real world could get screwed up between Khost and California.

In fact, that same assumption of malice applies to everything in The Tillman Story. Each and every fact is sinister. Each and every fact is evidence of a conspiracy. One of Tillman’s team members is assigned to fly back with the body but is told not to discuss the circumstances of the incident (which was still being investigated) with the family. Is this a reasonable precaution to avoid passing potentially bad information to the family (especially with this particular team member, a smarmy little creep who the filmmakers note later went AWOL), or part of a plot? After a month, Army officers inform the family that there is reason to believe it was fratricide. Is this an attempt to, perhaps, tell the family what happened, or part of a plot? The father sends an obscenity-laced letter to the Army regarding the initially mistake, so the Army initiates a second investigation (which would find at least one general officer culpable). A reasonable reaction to the family’s concerns, or part of a plot?

In The Tillman Story, it’s all part of a plot.

And the innuendo runs fast and furious. A memo circulates to various headquarters indicating the possibility that it was a fratricide incident, but the filmmakers assume that every general reads and digests every single memorandum that comes through their thousand soldier headquarters. That a bunch of them, and Donald Rumsfeld, cannot precisely testify before a Congressional committee as to the exact date they first read the memo becomes the most damning evidence of all in the eyes of these credulous documentarians.

This movie was, frankly, nearly too stupid to endure. To my right sat a short man who I think was a modestly successful actor (I won’t name him since I can’t be sure) nodding feverishly and making little noises of agreement with each of the film’s unsupported assertions and at all of its clichéd images. (Don’t get me started on the hackneyed, unlistenable old Neil Young tune “Hawks and Doves” that closes the movie).

Naturally, there was ominous footage of President Bush, who was apparently somehow in on it. Now, he did not say that Tillman was killed by the enemy when discussing Tillman’s death. Apparently, telling the truth was even worse and somehow more supportive of the giant lie than, well, not telling the truth would have been. Oh, and there is footage of Karl Rove as well, who is daring to smile at the Washington Correspondent’s dinner. The sort-of star to my right nearly climaxed when the Architect showed up on screen – if I was nicer I would have offered him a cigarette.

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What’s particularly annoying, besides the fact that – as the guy on my right proved – the filmmakers correctly believe that all they need to do to get their critical hosannas is flash a shot of one of the designated villains to make their case, is that they think their audience is so stupid. For example, they discuss how there is supposedly no evidence of any ambush against the second element at all even as the camera pans over witness statements where one of the Rangers states that he saw Taliban and witnessed muzzle flashes. Sorry, guys, but it’s still evidence even if you don’t like what it proves.

The filmmakers assert that Tillman’s legacy has been hijacked by evil neoconservatives who have tried to make him a symbol of the Global War on Terror, but in reality they are the ones enlisting Tillman’s memory in support of their own incoherent agenda. What’s clear is that the last thing they want is Tillman’s actions or words speaking for themselves.

They claim that Tillman refused to speak of his motives for joining the military, but they then dismiss as some sort of invasion of Tillman’s privacy the taped interview Tillman gave on September 12, 2001 in which he expressed admiration for American fighting men and expressed concern that he himself was not making any contribution (he enlisted a few months later). They note (twice) that Tillman read at least one book by the inexorable Noam Chomsky, as if that made him a convert to Chomsky’s dictator-loving leftist idiocy any more than his study of the Bible and other religious works meant he believed in God, which he allegedly did not. They portray him as alienated by the “illegal” war in Iraq, yet even after allegedly being offered a chance to get out of his enlistment early to return to the NFL he instead chose to accompany his battalion on the fateful deployment to Afghanistan. Even in death, Tillman refuses to conform to others’ expectations – especially those of these agenda documentarians.

While the film fails to make Tillman’s motives or his character clear, but what is clear is that the Tillman family is devastated by Pat’s death. You cannot see them without your heart going out to them. It’s horrible enough to lose a son or a brother, but to have it happen because of such a stupid, avoidable screw-up makes it doubly painful. The Tillmans’ constant refrain is that they are looking for answers, and it is clear they are. However, it is not clear what kind of answer they seek. The film does not answer the question – the family picks to pieces every bit of information they get, alternately complaining that the Army has not given them enough information then, after receiving a box of materials including witness statements photos, videos and forensic reports, declare that the Army must be trying to hide the facts by drowning them in information.

The film takes a moment to play an interview of an Army colonel who investigated the case speculating that the source of the Tillman family’s inability to be satisfied is their rather militant atheism (At Tillman’s memorial, Tillman’s younger brother, beer in hand, launched an obscenity-fueled tirade against speakers like John McCain who referred to Pat being in the hands of “a loving God.”). The filmmakers clearly expect their audience to roll their eyes at the colonel’s notion that without the comfort of religious faith the family members are seeking to satisfy their natural human need to understand Pat’s death via their endless “investigation” – here, the pseudo-star’s peepers nearly did a somersault. But, frankly, and meaning no disrespect to the family, the colonel’s comments ring truer than anything else in the film except Pat’s own words about 9/11.

Sadly, one legacy of the Tillman incident, according to some, is a reluctance by the military to issue decorations to recognize military heroes in order to avoid even the remotest chance of another embarrassment. If true, that would be a terrible disservice to a brave American. The filmmakers can say what they want, but Pat Tillman still chose to leave the NFL to join the Rangers. He chose to go to Airborne School and Ranger School. He chose to charge up that hill, and he chose to try and stop the friendly fire toward his men.

His actions speak louder than any confused , twisted characterization by these documentarians. His actions also speak louder than any characterization I might give them. Tillman’s actions speak for themselves, and the one thing the movie does affirm is what we all already knew -- that Airborne Ranger Corporal Pat Tillman probably would have wanted it that way.

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