Patrick Daniel Tillman was a star high-school football player who attended Arizona State University on a scholarship and graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average with a degree in marketing. At 5-foot-11, he was deemed by many to be too short to compete in the NFL, but he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and racked up some impressive stats playing safety.
Then, in May 2002, Pat and his brother Kevin, who played baseball for the Anaheim Angels, walked away from their sports careers - and multi-million-dollar salaries - and signed three-year enlistments with the U.S. Army. According to The Tillman Story, director Amir Bar-Lev's compelling, infuriating documentary, the brothers were simply responding to their patriotic duty - military service was a family tradition - and the attacks on Sept. 11 motivated them to follow the heritage of their ancestors and serve.
But on April 24, 2004, something went horribly wrong, and Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration awarded him the Silver Star and initially claimed he had died while fighting Taliban militia. Tillman's celebrity as an athlete made him a poster boy for pro-war propaganda, and his death became a talking point in political debates.
And then, gradually, after constant probing by Tillman's relatives and even an attempt by military personnel to discredit the family by branding them "atheists'' who couldn't let his death go, the truth began to emerge. Alternating among interviews with Tillman's parents, younger brother and some of the men who fought alongside him (including a soldier who was standing a few feet away when he was killed), The Tillman Story clearly lays out exactly what happened that caused Tillman to be blown to bits by fellow U.S.forces - and the government's efforts to whitewash the story to avoid mounting criticism of the war.
As the movie explains, the coverup and subsequent downplaying of the tragedy reached to the highest echelons of government. But the more deception and misinformation Tillman's parents were fed, the more determined they became to discover the truth. As Pat's mother Mary puts it, "By putting this heroic, saintly quality to him, you take away the human being."
The Tillman Story nonetheless renders its subject as a genuine hero - a soldier who returned to the battlefield to complete his tour of duty, even after being disillusioned by the war in Iraq and offered an NFL escape clause that would have granted him an honorable discharge. He just wasn't the sort of hero the government pretended he was. This eye-opening, inspiring movie is a permanent corrective to that deception.
Director: Amir Bar-Lev.
Screenwriter: Mark Monroe.
Producers: John Battsek.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 94 minutes. Vulgar language. Opens Friday Sept. 17 in Miami-Dade only at South Beach.