While many decry the general state of Movieland these days, these criticisms tend to evaporate when the conversation turns to the documentary format.
We really are living in a golden age of documentaries. Whether you love him, hate him or just think he needs to lose weight, Michael Moore has, through Bowling For Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), helped to give the documentary a profile it hasn’t enjoyed for decades.
This higher profile has led to movie studios taking chances on documentary films they wouldn’t have given a second thought to 10 years ago. As a result films such as Touching The Void (2003), Capturing The Friedmans (2003) and Man On Wire (2008) have been allowed to flourish.
And far more than features, documentaries are the place to go to get a more effective dissection of what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider War on Terror (if that phrase even means anything these days).
No End In Sight (2007), Iraq In Fragments (2006), the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side (2007) and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008) (not to mention numerous foreign language films, such as the brilliant Control Room (2004)) – these serve as pretty much the only western investigative journalism coming out of this corner of the Middle East at the moment, which shames a mainstream media that’s kowtowed to what the US – and UK – governments and militaries have been peddling since day one.
The Tillman Story, although secondary to the films I’ve just mentioned, is an honourable addition to this cannon of work nonetheless.
Remember Private Jessica Lynch? Supposedly, she was taken hostage after her unit was ambushed by ‘terrorists’ and tortured. Her subsequent rescue became world news and was dubbed ‘Saving Private Lynch’ by the news media. However, it emerged later that Lynch had in fact been receiving hospital care by Iraqi medical staff at the time of her rescue and hadn’t been tortured, after all. For all intents and purposes Lynch’s experiences had been warped by the Bush government and draped in the American flag for purposes of propaganda. Surely it wouldn’t be allowed to happen again, right?
Corporal Pat Tillman was a successful NFL star when he decided to enlist with the US military along with his brother Kevin in 2002. A naturally gifted athlete, it turned out that he was also a naturally gifted leader and Tillman was soon given command of his own unit.
On April 22, 2004, it was reported by the military that Tillman and his men had been ambushed and Tillman had died heroically in the line of duty. His body was flown back to the States and he was quickly eulogised by George Bush et al for being a True American before his memorial service was broadcast on national television.
However, the truth has a funny habit of seeping out and it emerged several weeks later that Tillman had in fact been killed by friendly fire.
To make matters worse, it then leaked out some time later that a confidential memo had been sent to senior generals and the Bush administration several days before the memorial service making them aware Tillman had almost certainly been killed by friendly fire.
In other words, there had been more than enough time to correct the ‘official’ version of events before Tillman’s memorial service. However, this would have rained on the propaganda parade that was already in full effect and, well, friendly fire just doesn’t sound as patriotic a death as going out in a blaze of glory does it?
Without the tireless work of Pat Tillman’s family, most notably his devoted mother Dannie, it is likely that little or none of this shameless episode would have seen the light of day.
It is this fight that director Amir Bar-Lev manages to convey so well in The Tillman Story. Very reminiscent of Errol Morris, Bar-Lev paints a clear picture on the broadest of canvasses, patiently following each key strand through to its natural conclusion, but never forgetting the human story of a family refusing to lie down and let their son be used as a poster boy for a war none of them, most of all Pat, believed in any longer.
The Tillman Story falls down due to the dearth of comment from the military. Whatever side you’re on, a story only becomes fair and balanced when you hear from both sides. In the post-film Q&A I asked Bar-Lev if he had approached senior military and/or government figures to ask them to explain themselves. He replied in the affirmative, but none had been forthcoming (with the exception of a retired general who was effectively used as a scapegoat for the military’s failings and so was presumably open to giving his side of the story) and the omission of this information at the end of the film leads you to assume otherwise.
Nevertheless, this is a story that needed telling and the fact it is presented so lucidly is to Bar-Lev’s credit.