Sundance Movie Review/Interview: Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story

In My Kid Could Paint That, director Amir Bar-Lev followed around the family of child prodigy Maria Olmstead, documenting her rise to fame and its subsequent painful backlash. But Bar-Lev's film ended up becoming less a document of Olmstead's life, and more about Bar-Lev's own struggle to come to terms with the concept of truth and the role of journalism.

In The Tillman Story, Bar-Lev fixes his gaze on an almost equally contentious public figure: Pat Tillman. Tillman was famously offered a multi-million dollar NFL contract, only to give it up in order to serve in the military. When Tillman was shot and killed in the line of duty, the U.S. military spun the incident as a story of a brave soldier killed while fighting off Taliban forces. Later, it was revealed that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, and that the military had lied in its initial report about Tillman's death. What went into these lies, and what actually happened to Pat Tillman? These are the questions that Bar-Lev examines in his film.

After the jump, a few thoughts about the film and my interview with director Amir Bar-Lev, in which he talks about the  of documentary filmmaking and the importance of holding government accountable.

While many families might have accepted the heroic tale told about Pat Tillman by the military, Tillman's family refused to accept the convenient story. Bar-Lev documents the family's fight for the truth, with Tillman's mother, Mary, serving as the film's quasi-protagonist. True heroism, the film seems to say, is not found in the simplistic myths we consume, but in the quest for the truth, regardless of its moral complexity or its consequences.

The Tillman Story attempts to be many things, and mostly succeeds. As a document of the life of the real Pat Tillman, the film accomplishes what soundbyte-inclined television pundits have failed to. As an examination into America's desire and need for simplistic narratives to inform our perceptions, the film is insightful and eye-opening. And as a damning examination of the process of a military cover-up, the film will rile audiences.

Perhaps the only flaw of the film is that not that much new probative information has been unearthed here. While Bar-Lev interviews many of Tillman's family and friends to get first-person accounts of Tillman's accident, there is no conclusive evidence about the true circumstances and causes of Tillman's death (Bar-Lev has already shown himself apt at presenting the hazy boundary between truth and fiction). However, the film does make abundantly clear that "fog of war" story the military told about Tillman's death is not accurate.  Moreover, the interviews here are informative and moving, providing illumination into Tillman as a human being. If you only have a passing familiarity with the story of Pat Tillman, you'll still learn a great deal from The Tillman Story. More importantly, the film presents a glimpse at what goes into selling a war to the American people. If you want to see the military propaganda machine revealed in its basest form, you should watch this movie. And get upset.

I had a chance to speak with Amir Bar-Lev at the Sundance Film Festival. Here's the video of our conversation.

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