Football star Pat Tillman skyrocketed to national fame in 2002, when, eight months after 9/11, he turned down a multi-million-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army and join the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hailed far and wide as the rare American for whom patriotic duty trumped fame and fortune (when he wasn't being snarked about as a sports star with delusions of invincibility), Tillman was all but canonized after his death in Afghanistan, where his unit was reportedly ambushed by members of an Afghan militia. Tillman entered the great hereafter as an American hero who made the ultimate sacrifice for the greatest country on earth.
Unfortunately, nearly every aspect of the official Tillman story was bullshit—and in The Tillman Story, documentarian Amir Bar-Lev sets out to untangle the web of lies, hidden truths, and self-serving propaganda that sought to render an American tragedy an American triumph and turn dead Pat Tillman into a heavenly G.I. Joe doll.
Of course the most horrifying untruth is now common knowledge: Rather than enemy fire, Tillman was killed by U.S. troops during a chaotic gun battle in an Afghan canyon. What The Tillman Story exposes are the grotesque machinations undertaken by military officials to bamboozle Tillman's family and co-opt the tragedy for their own ass-covering ends. The engines of this exposé are the surviving Tillmans themselves—Pat Tillman's mother, father, brothers, and wife, whom we see being driven to obsession by the shameless prevarications of military officials and who present a portrait of their son/brother/husband that is shockingly at odds with so much of what's come before. Rather than a heavenly patriot or ego-driven sports star, Tillman was a well-read, intellectually curious atheist who grew to openly question the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hoped only to make it out alive. He didn't, and The Tillman Story is the closest thing America has produced to a proper tribute, offering a maddening, heartbreaking, fittingly complicated portrait of a real-life American hero and the country that failed him.