By Armond White
“Fratricide” is the word used in Amir Bar-Lev’s doc The Tillman Story to describe the 4/22/04 incident in which Pvt. George Tillman was killed while on duty in Afghanistan. It is a sign of Bar-Lev’s political bias that his film favors that moralizing term over the military designation “friendly fire” to describe gunfire discharged by allies and colleagues. Bar-Lev wants the tragic implications of a taboo act and is not above structuring this investigation into exactly how Tillman became a celebrated casualty of the Afghan campaign into lurid melodrama. The Tillman Story is really about the chicanery of the U.S. Military—first in covering up the facts, then presenting a version to the media who used it to promote the war to the public. The Tillman Story is another example of how contemporary journalism and documentary-making have lost credibility.
Bar-Lev starts from a slanted assessment of military duty, based on the partisan dispute that an unjust war invalidates a soldier’s commitment. The film’s premise is that Tillman’s decision to give up a lucrative NFL career and join the military after 9/11 was unfathomable and then dishonored by the military’s self-protective behavior. Wrought-up in the Tillman family’s disillusionment and confusion, Bar-Lev can’t separate institutional critique from anti-war protest—and doesn’t want to.
The Tillman Story exemplifies the folly in new advocacy documentary. It forfeits scrutiny and understanding for spleen. From Josh Brolin’s narration (intended to evoke his role as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. and the shame liberals wanted to infer from it) to the frequent complaints about media complicity, Bar-Lev confuses the point of his disapproval. He shifts from the Tillman family’s investigations, aided by an activist blogger, to superificial allegations about lazy reporting that took the “Silver Star narrative” of Tilman’s supposed bravery—“carried by all major networks, abridged, relied upon, told over and over again”—and then indicts the military chain of command, all the way up to the White House.
We are decades past the 1979 primetime network TV movie titled Friendly Fire starring Carol Burnett, which introduced that phrase into American homes during the Vietnam era. A fact-based drama strikingly similar to the Tillman tragedy, it grappled with the difficulty of comprehending that concept—which included parsing the meaning of war democracy and duty. Instead, Bar-Lev indulges a Michael Moore-level cynicism. This doc injects negative emotional values into a story of why solders fight, what they risk and how they are remembered. Preston Sturges examined those issues in the 1944 Hail the Conquering Hero, but without the demoralizing cynicism of Bush-era media. It’s not the military that has changed but filmmaking standards.
At one point, Tillman’s friends from the platoon—Russell Baer and Jason Parsons—contradict their own motives (“I wanted to serve myself, get money for college, blow things up,” ones says) and Bar-Lev uses their anguish to obnoxiously indicate foul play or some envious homo-triangle envy. One crucial flaw takes a soldier’s testimony—“I wanted to stay in the firefight”—and continously misrepeats it as, “I wanted to be in the firefight.”
The Tillman Story devours itself as it goes along, becoming an example of the futility that Tillman’s parents, siblings, wife and friends eventually suffer. “The questioning had run its course,” Tillman’s mom, Dannie, sighs after sitting through dissatisfying Congressional hearings. “I don’t think there’s much else that can be done.” But, yes, there is: This is a propaganda film that exploits war without explaining the experience. Bar-Lev himself seems unsure if the real subject is men, war, government or media.
The Tillman Story
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev
Runtime: 94 min.
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