Sundance Review: The Tillman Story

I was a little concerned going into this that I wouldn’t fully understand the relevance of this story considering that the huge news coverage of who Pat Tillman was and his subsequent death hadn’t received much coverage in the UK. However, Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) was enough of a draw for me to head down to see it and I’m really glad I did as the cultural significance really didn’t feel important enough to impinge this incredible story.

The Tillman Story tells the series of events of the NFL player Pat Tillman and his choice to give up a lucrative football contract to enlist in the military after 9/11, and his subsequent death in Afghanistan by friendly fire.

My ingrained cynicism made me nervous that this would be a huge hero story that overly glorified Tillman into a one-dimensional character, and the film does glorify him but for all the right reasons.  Some of the best scenes are those with his family as they describe his character. His relationship with his two brothers is portrayed excellently and their use of bad language throughout, from a colourful eulogy, to descriptions of it by family friends provides a nice comic relief and gives a better sense of who he was.

Through descriptions by family and two particular soldiers closest to him you get a sense that Tillman was unusually humble and spotlight shy, considering his previous profession. He refused to give interviews at the time as to his motivations for enlisting and I found it really heartbreaking seeing the family’s devastation as to the media fanfare after their son’s death. There is a particular scene in which Tillman is being celebrated at a football game and you can see the family’s discomfort and pain at the sheer scale of the hoo-ha created, something which really opposes their son’s character.

The second strand to the story is the factors surrounding his death. The two soldiers who served with him, one of whom was with him when he died, give incredible accounts of what happened and the events of how the friendly fire occurred are truly shocking.

The film goes through the various investigations into his death, largely orchestrated by his family, and the unbelievable attempts to cover up the truth of what happened not only from the family but also the nation. It shows the incredible journey his family have gone on to uncover the truth about what happened to their son and have the people responsible for his death held accountable and you can’t help but feel shocked about the manner in which his death was covered up.

One of the aspects of the film I liked the most was the critique of the news media of memorialising him in an over-the-top way, for the wrong reasons. As much as the family are furious at the military’s handling of their son’s death they are also appalled at the use of his death as a propaganda tool which seems like a double insult to his memory.

The Tillman Story is a fantastically captivating and powerful film and the one benefit to his celebrity, in this case, is that it may highlight this incredible story and prevent another happening in the future.