Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 4, 2010

The Tillman Story

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

After having seen countless fictional and documentary movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11—some good (The Men who Stare at Goats, The Ground Truth) and some not good at all (Redacted, No End in Sight)—there is one that soars above all the rest: a documentary called The Tillman Story that incorporates the kind of investigative journalism associated with the genre as well as the searing drama that fiction delivers.

I suppose that most people are familiar with the bare bones narrative of Pat Tillman, a professional football player earning millions who enlisted in the army along with his younger brother in the months following 9/11.  On April 22, 2004, when he was on patrol in Afghanistan, he was killed by “friendly fire”, a euphemism that the film eschews in favor of the more accurate fratricide. But this was not the story that the Pentagon released to the media. They said that he died in combat even though they knew the truth. He became a convenient propaganda tool for a “war on terror” that was starting to unravel.

While Pat Tillman was obviously gung-ho when he joined, he had pretty much become disillusioned with the war long before he was killed. We learn that when he was in Iraq, just over a year before he was killed in Afghanistan, he was part of a squad providing tactical support for the “rescue” of Jessica Lynch from a Baghdad hospital supposedly swarming with insurgents, where she was being treated for wounds suffered during combat with the same enemy. Little did he suspect that he would be exploited by the propaganda machine himself one day. The Pentagon reported that she emptied her gun during a terrible firefight when in reality her M-16 had jammed before she took a single shot. Furthermore, when she was in the hospital, she was in no danger since there were no insurgents there at all. The high command in Baghdad staged a film shoot of her being “rescued” from a non-existent enemy.

Tillman not only took all this in with apparent disgust. He had also made up his mind that the occupation of Iraq was unjust. He was reading Chomsky around this time and thinking things through. Whatever he was, he was not the gung-ho yahoo that Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone played in their movies.

Finding out about the real Pat Tillman is, as the title of the movie implies, one of its creator’s main aims. Through interviews with his family and the men who fought alongside him, we discover that he was an exceedingly complex and interesting figure. To begin with, he was an outspoken atheist as were apparently the members of his family.

During one of the most poignant moments of the film that brought tears to my eyes, his younger brother Richard tells the attendees at Pat’s memorial meeting to forget about his brother being with god because he didn’t believe that bullshit. He was dead and in the ground—that was all.

By this time, the family had already begun their fight to get out the word on how he died. The army did everything it could to make their task more difficult. For example, they supplied an over 3000-page file on his death which amounted to a case of information overload. Someone without a military background would be hard put to make sense of a lot of the technical detail and the jargon, especially when many of the names and places were blacked out for “security” purposes. But unless the Tillmans could get in touch with the people who were named in the files, they would be at a loss.

Fortunately, Stan Goff who had served in the Army Rangers just like Pat Tillman was able to assist them. He knew the army bureaucracy inside and out and helped them develop a coherent narrative out of the massive file. Stan is interviewed throughout the film and is a key element of its success on political and artistic terms. Some day an enterprising film maker will do something on Stan Goff himself, who joined the military with the same kind of enthusiasm as Pat Tillman but became an opponent of militarism and imperialism through his exposure to Third World realities, especially when on a detail in Haiti. Stan is a latter day Smedley Butler, the highly decorated Marine general who said in 1933:

I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

Nobody knows if Pat Tillman would have become an open opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although there is plenty of evidence that he might have. He comes across as someone who would not budge an inch on his principles, moving him at one point to give up millions as a professional football player to become a grunt in Afghanistan. One can easily see him defying the military-football-Fox News consensus and giving speeches laced with quotes from Noam Chomsky.

But the intention of the film makers is not to speculate on what would have become of him, but to tell the story of a certain kind of American who believes in the sort of things you are taught in a high school civics class. As such, he will remind you very much of another victim of senseless wars, Ron Kovic, the paraplegic Vietnam veteran and author of Born on the Fourth of July.

The Tillman Story and Born on the Fourth of July are similar tales in many ways. They describe epic struggles to challenge the mythology of the war-making machinery. Ron Kovic survived long enough to take part in some of the most momentous antiwar demonstrations, while Pat Tillman’s family conducted a struggle against lies and deceit in their own way. Their tale is not so much one of repudiating war, but repudiating the cynical and degraded propaganda machine that makes such wars possible.

In the climax of the film, we see the Tillmans at a Congressional hearing with a bunch of generals and Donald Rumsfeld secreting a snail’s trail of evasions and “I can’t recall’s”. All in all, you will be reminded of the testimony of Goldman Sachs executives and BP’s Tony Hayward. The movie is a stunning reminder that during the awful and dangerous times of capitalism in its dotage, the rulers will be forced to lie and lie and lie once again. In such circumstances, the truth will be a stick of dynamite against a dying system. The Tillman Story will be an especially explosive part of this arsenal for change.

The film opens on a limited distribution basis on August 20th. It is not to be missed.


  1. Thanks Louis,
    Can’t wait to see it. Looks like a great film.

    Comment by Sheldon — July 4, 2010 @ 11:50 pm

  2. The tragedy is that McCrystal did not go down for lying about the death of Tillman but for the truth about the war and the idiots prosecuting it from Bush to Obama keep on with the same lies.

    Comment by Polly Connelly — July 5, 2010 @ 12:25 am

  3. I’ve heard so much about the Pat Tillman story and am glad there’s finally been a movie made about it. Your review brings it to life.

    Comment by haensgen — July 5, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  4. Your review is on target. I saw the movie just over a week ago in DC. Good movie.

    However, Amir Bar-Lev barely mentioned Gen. McChrystal, and missed the story of how Congress (and President Obama) have been part of the cover-up. Ironically, both Congress and Obama protectd Gen. McChrystal from scrutiny into his central role in the fabricated Silver Star and his ass-covering P4 memo.

    If you’ld like to learn more, I’ve posted several documents at http://www.feralfirefighter.blogspot.com. I’m currently working on another document expanding on Congress’s role in this sorry story.

    Comment by Guy Montag — July 6, 2010 @ 3:48 pm

  5. […] After having seen countless fictional and documentary movies about the warsin Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11?some good (The Men who Stare at Goats, TheGround Truth) and some not good at all (Redacted, No End in Sight)?there is onethat soars above all the rest: a documentary called The Tillman Story thatincorporates the kind of investigative journalism associated with the genre aswell as searing drama of the kind that fiction delivers. https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/07/04/the-tillman-story/ […]

    Pingback by #338: Part 2 « GPJA's Blog — July 14, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

  6. […] would not be disappointed if any of these five films won an award, but my top three picks remain: The Pat Tillman Story, Budrus, Julia Bacha’s tale of Palestinian resistance, and Gasland, a powerful exposé of […]

    Pingback by Three 2010 documentaries « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 6, 2010 @ 8:36 pm

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