Monday, September 6, 2010

"The Tillman Story" and American Mythmaking.

This is a great documentary, essential viewing, and a necessary addition to the archives of American political and military manipulation of American public sentiment.

Soon after the disaster in New York on 9/11, Pat Tillman, rising star of the Arizona Cardinals NFL Football Team, felt like he wanted to make an important contribution to his country.  In 2002 he left the team, enlisted in the Army, where he joined an outfit of Rangers, and was deployed to Afghanistan.  During a mission in which his team was split, an "ambush" ensued, in which Tillman was shot and killed.  The military, learning that Tillman's death was the result of friendly fire, sought to spin the story, exploiting Tillman, and his family's grief, as a tool for recruitment and support for the war.

Director Amir Bar-lev tells this story with effective use of archival footage, photographs, redacted documents, and recent interviews with family members and colleagues.  As a film,it is as compelling as some of cinema's best political dramas like "All The President's Men" and "Z".  As a chronicle of loss, deception, and misguided mythmaking, it is evenhanded and clear-headed, the anger seething but never boiling over into sanctimony.  

The film chronicles Pat's life, his relationships with parents and brothers and childhood sweetheart (who became his wife), his disillusionment with the war in Iraq, the incident that killed him, and the attempts by military and political figures to hide the truth and "create a heroic myth" for an unsuspecting American public.

We learn about the human being that was Pat Tillman, so our identification with his grieving, angry and questioning family is complete on the most basic emotional levels.  Tillman's integrity, openness and intelligence runs counter to the stereotype for the privileged athlete.  He had heroic qualities to be sure, which were co-opted and misinterpreted for political reasons.   The film does not attempt to avoid Tillman's flaws, and so the narrative built around his athletic purity and unflinching patriotism and sacrifice tears viewers in several directions.

Some (like me) will bring some questions and assumptions into the theater.  Would we have even heard of Pat Tillman had he not played professional football?  Was Tillman accorded some special treatment?  Should Tillman's motivations be questioned any less (or more) than any other enlistee?  How could the American public blindly accept the myth that was being forced upon it?   The movie effectively lays to rest some of these preconceived resentments and questions, and presents its facts for maximum emotional impact.  Viewers will have much different reasons for being angry, and will have  renewed encouragement to cast a very cynical eye and ear to mainstream media and military pronouncements.

Tillman was also involved during the "rescue" of Jessica Lynch, another incredible re-working of the truth in order to placate American sensibilities and reinforce the fraudulently exploited narrative of the American hero. 

An essential companion piece to this film is Susan Faludi's book,  "The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America", which includes an in-depth chapter on the Lynch incident and an exquisitely detailed explanation of how and why Americans still cling to its frontier myths.  This is a fabulous, important book, which many in Congress, the military, even Hollywood, would wish you would ignore.

Two days after seeing "The Tillman Story" , the most vivid image is still that of Tillman's face....I have not been able to forget that face, and my appreciation for him, flaws and all, and my regret for the family still trying to get official acknowledgment of the truth and to hold those to blame responsible.  Looking at that face, in its many angles and ages, the honest gaze and ready, exuberant smile, I realized that while I watched this film I had engaged in a private conversation with it, and I asked questions that the film attempted to answer, and motivated me to learn more, and gained an understanding beyond the boundaries of the movie itself.  That's what great documentaries can inspire one to do. 

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