On the football field, Pat Tillman was famous for staying in the game no matter what.
It's a trait he must have learned from his mother, Mary Tillman. In an early interview, Pat, the former NFL star killed by friendly-fire in Afghanistan in 2004, tells the story of his mother running a marathon.
"She came in last. I mean dead last. They were breaking down the race when she crossed the finish line... That's the kind of woman she is."
She may not have had the physical ability of her son, but her sheer will was the stuff of great athletes--and mothers.
The Tillman Story, Amir Bar-Lev's comprehensive and extremely well-executed new documentary about the life, death and white-washing of the fallen Army Ranger, is as much about Pat, as it is about his mom.
Mary never wanted her son to join the army, and when he did she blamed herself for speaking highly of her veteran relatives. But the film paints Pat as a rebel, a free-spirit and a troop leader of a clan of Tillman brothers. It was in his blood, you might say. But so was skepticism. He worried about his public persona being manipulated for the war efforts and armed himself against it.
Pat Tillman, the man, kept his reasons for joining the armed forces personal. But his statements about the atrocities of September 11 were used to explain his decision to enlist in 2002, and fostered the legend of Pat Tillman, the hero.
Arguably, that was the first sign that Mary was losing her son to the strong arm of the military and its propaganda machine. When he died in the mountains of Afghanistan on his second tour of duty, his memory as an individual was obscured once again--along with the cause of his death.
The Tillman family weren't initially told the truth about Pat's death--that it was by friendly fire. His funeral was a platform for political agenda. It was, according to the Tillmans, everything Pat hated. Whether he played a poor football game, or regretted his decision to enter the war, Pat told the truth. Even when the truth was ugly. Mary took over his mission in his death.
Throughout the cover-up, the media was flooded with images of a martyr--a god-fearing, humble fighter with a deep devotion to the military. In fact he was none of those things. An ardent Atheist, a proud rabble-rouser and a man who'd come to criticize the war, Pat had even rejected a military burial. But once the lies about Pat's death were spun, the lies about his life followed suit.
It was left to Mary to preserve her son's memory as an individual. It required vigilant research decoding the details of his assassination. When the truth about Pat's death was revealed, she didn't rest, resolving to get all the facts and an admission of a cover-up from the military. She enlisted army veterans to parse convoluted evidence, reached out to Pat's fellow rangers for clues and wrote exhaustive letters to officials.
Being a single person fighting the most powerful system in the world was an impossible task. It was made more impossible as a woman. After Mary's multi-year struggle with the bureaucracy, Pat's father, Pat Sr. wrote a single threatening note to an army investigator signed "F--- you and yours." It's only then the family gets the congressional hearing Mary had so long demanded.
In 2008, Mary, along with her son, Kevin, Pat's brother and fellow soldier, stood before congress pleading for the truth about the military cover-up. In her statement, she explains she's not objecting to the way he died, at the hands of his fellow soldiers, but the way it was concealed. War is ugly, she bleats, her eyes lined in red. And people, especially, families of fallen, deserve to know the truth about it.
Her efforts are thwarted when Rumsfeld and his henchmen denied remembering exact dates they received information about Pat's death. For the first time in the film, Mary appears defeated. But she hasn't given up on Pat or his legacy of speaking his mind. From releasing a book, to speaking out against General McChrystal's recent Yale University appointment, she disrupts the neat little message prescribed to Pat. As a whistle-blower on the exploitation of soldiers and their families, she upholds Pat's memory in a very different way than the military would have intended.
With "The Tillman Story", she's added another layer to the memory of Pat Tillman. The most moving moment in the film comes when she remembers her son as the kind of person who could be rendered in memory with out any effort. "I can just think of him and he's there. That's the kind of person he was." While she can't bring Pat back to life, she's come as close as humanly possible through participation in Bar-Lev's project. Photos of him jumping off a cliff, climbing a tree with his brothers, cursing like a wild-man and knocking back a beer, show another side to Pat. Not the square-jawed American hero in Ranger uniform the military packaged, or the tragic champion of truth he's come to represent of late, but a son. A very special, and very loved son.
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