TILLMAN STORY, THE - Blu-ray review

...a documentary that can give your favorite title in this genre a run for its money.


There was a time in my life where I thought the maddest I'd ever get after seeing a documentary was following Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." Then a little film called "An Inconvenient Truth" came along and pissed me off something awful, followed up by a really well done title, "Food, Inc.," that made me far angrier than ever before about American excess and over indulgence.

As good as these three titles are (I'll pause now so you step down from your political pedestal or your slanted soapbox and admit that these are good films…there, that's better), I instantly forgot about them after popping "The Tillman Story" into my Blu-ray player. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has released a documentary that can give your favorite title in this genre a run for its money.

Oh, and just for the record, "The Tillman Story" induced more anger from me than the three titles above combined.

It was pretty difficult to avoid the media coverage Pat Tillman's death received in Spring 2004. Maybe it was because he played in the National Football League, or perhaps his decision to give up money and prestige to serve his country appeared so selfless that his passing indirectly became magnified. Some, including Pat's family, will tell you his death was such a big deal because the United States Army approached it as a fire to be fueled with gasoline rather than put out with water.

In many ways, it was the back-story that drove the big time attention: a guy who had it all going to war and being heroically killed during a firefight. Of course, as the entire nation eventually learned, much detail surrounding Pat's death hadn't yet surfaced. "The Tillman Story" helps chronicle the journey that Pat's immediate family suffered through as they encountered countless roadblocks and barriers to their quest for the truth.

Understand that "The Tillman Story" is only about 35% focused on Pat's youth and football career. The rest critically examines how Pat's mother Dannie, his father Patrick, his wife Marie, his younger brother Richard, his older brother Kevin and his fellow Army Rangers Russell Baer, Jason Parsons and Bryan O'Neal, as well as retired Army soldier Stan Goff, recount his enlistment, military service, death and cover up.

Pat's wife tells director Amir Bar-Lev about how, immediately after her husband died, well-dressed military men appeared at her door not to offer condolences, but to ask her to sign off on a high profile military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery (in his enlistment papers, which we get a look at, Pat specifically indicated this was not his preference). Pat's mother and father recount how they demanded answers, only to be more or less buried with censored Army documents that required a trained eye (Goff's) to decipher. His fellow Army Rangers detail Pat's commitment and pride, along with the grim and real details surrounding his death (it becomes clear from their statements that Tillman died from friendly fire, not in combat against Afghan forces, as was initially communicated across the United States).

Pat's family doesn't hesitate to say how uncomfortable the attention surrounding his death made them. We learn that from the get go, something just didn't sit right in their stomachs. Dannie and Patrick were even able to trace the cover up and deception into the highest ranks of George W. Bush's administration, yet in the film's climax, when such big names like Donald Rumsfeld and big time decorated Army generals sat in front of a Congressional panel, they passed the buck and played dumb. The Tillmans didn't want compensation or pity, but they did want the truth, and perhaps a promise that, as a result of what happened to their loved one, such a tragedy would never happen again. Tragically, the very government in place to protect and serve its people at this basic, elementary level couldn't even give them that.

It's a popular thought that everyone is glorious in death. Pat Tillman was glorious in life, but not because he lived with excess or thought he was better than anyone. "The Tillman Story" indicates that Pat did what he loved and loved what he did far beyond the football field. He understood that to put on pads and pursue a pigskin every Sunday was a privilege, not a right, and following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, elected to step from a position of privilege to a position of service. The Army and government lies, cover up and dishonesty here are enough to make anyone's blood boil.

"The Tillman Story" works so well because it's a unique tale being retold by the people who lived it. There aren't any historians here wearing nice clothes and claiming to be all knowing about the matter at hand. Forget fancy technological reenactments or simulations. We get first hand interviews, lots of news snippets from the various networks and a clear, concise presentation about one man's family and their unending desire for the truth and an explanation.

I didn't know the name Pat Tillman until after he'd given up football and been deployed to the Middle East, but like so many I latched onto his story. As a result, there is no nice way to sugar coat what I felt after "The Tillman Story," and what I hope you'll feel if you watch. What the United States Army and government did to Tillman and his family after he'd been killed was immoral, atrocious and dare I say, treason. The manipulation and glorifying propaganda now associated with this incident should be sour enough to make any American shudder when they see 50 stars and 13 stripes. If this documentary isn't enough to make you mad as hell, I don't know what is.

Sony's video transfer is about as basic a 1.78:1 1080p High Definition outlook as I've seen. The work done to make news video clips from half a decade ago look sharp is good, but not great. The image is mostly clear and pleasant to take in, and no extremes in coloration are evident. I anticipated more clarity in the aged video clips and better perspective in the interviews, however.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, "The Tillman Story" has a sharp and clear soundtrack that is very easy to hear and even easier to decipher emotion from. The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio output won't leave any feeling, good or bad, open to interpretation. You'll feel the Tillman family's anger and frustration, as well as their pride and genuine love for their now deceased son, brother and friend. The accompanying music is a powerful compliment, yet it doesn't overwhelm or exceed its boundaries. English subtitles are available.

The only special feature is titled: "A Look Behind the Scenes: Pat Tillman, The Man, The Mission, The Legacy." I anticipated more, but because so much was shared during the film itself, I'm not surprised the special features aren't more robust.

A Final Word:
In his memoir on the Vietnam War titled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara wrote in the preface: "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." The day the Army admits it was terribly wrong and Tillmans get what they deserve and desire in terms of a complete explanation from our government will be the day my complete faith in it is restored.


Film Value