Pat Tillman's mother, Dannie (right) stands up for the true legacy of her son (left) in 'The Tillman Story.'

Bar-Lev on the True 'Tillman Story'

Susan Gerhard August 30, 2010

While professional sports and the U.S. military share many metaphors, they rarely share employees. Football player-turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, leaving behind lucrative possibilities on the gridiron to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, was, from the beginning, more than a soldier; he was an opportunity for the U.S. government. When he died while serving, the crisis was quickly turned into propaganda. What would later be revealed to be a death by accident, "friendly fire," was given the full-scale Jessica Lynch treatment. Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story shows how the truth  about Tillman's death was revealed—by the dogged investigations from Pat's mother and the rest of his family—and invites a reconsideration of the meaning of "bravery" as the battle switches from Pat Tillman in Afghanistan to his mother's fight in Congress. Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That) is a veteran at cutting through obfuscation. It was a pleasure to speak in person with the Berkeley-raised director about The Tillman Story, its Bay Area roots, and the nature of integrity.

SF360: Where was your entry into the story?

Amir Bar-Lev: My producer, John Battsek [One Day in September] is a huge sports fan and was more aware of the story than I was. Any documentary filmmaker will be excited by the opportunity to correct the record. I could tell from the most cursory look into it that he had been Paul Bunyanized and this was a great opportunity to correct the record. I jumped at it for that reason.

SF360; Directors don't often talk about the reading they did pre-production like you do in the notes about this film. Can you talk about the thinking you did before you turned the camera on?

Bar-Lev: Before, during and after. The greatest challenge for this film was in editing it down. I found this on all three films. When you spend three years thinking about something, you start to see these lacunae. The story becomes the tip of an iceberg. You start to see almost everything through the lens of the story you're trying to tell. We found it very useful to follow these ideas where ever they led us. It started with us immersing ourselves in the nation's cultural response to 9/11.  That led us to the years before 9/11, the fetishization of WWII and nostalgia for the 'Greatest Generation.' Because everyone said, over and over again, 'He was a figure cut from the Greatest Generation.' That got us thinking about issues of moral certitude vs. moral relativism. Once we realized that Pat Tillman was not this paragon of moral certitude that he had been made into by a lot of people, that opened up this whole thing.... A lot of that is in the background to the film, but it's part of the interesting underpinnings of it.

SF360: The language of American football are so easily transferrable to military actions. The whole vocabulary of that particular sport.....

Bar-Lev: After Pat Tillman died, sportscasters didn't [use that language] as much....

SF360: I was interested in how the brothers grew up here in Northern California, and how their childhood or their family culture equipped them to fight.

Bar-Lev: I think it's a Bay Area story. That's one of the reasons I was really excited about it, to begin with. I recognized in some ways that I and the people around me were raised similarly.  As his father puts it in the film, 'We deprived them for their own good.' My parents deprived me for my own good, too. I wasn't allowed to play with war toys. I wasn't allowed to watch television. My mom has an absolutely foul mouth, and I got in trouble at school because my parents would not forbid me from swearing. The Tillmans have an independent streak that I recognize as a Bay Area trait. Obviously, these are generalizations. But in the lionization of Pat Tillman, a lot of his personality traits had to be sheared away. The first things to go were the Bay Area things, because they didn't fit what people wanted him to be. That was one of the easiest parts of this film was breathing life back into those things.

Our investigation respects Pat's decision not to air his thinking around enlisting. The truth is I don't know why he enlisted. I deliberately don't know, because the family doesn't talk about it, and I decided as a filmmaker not to go there. You hopefully can tell from the film that it was a lot more complex a decision than 'I have to go avenge 9/11 and kill Osama bin Laden.'

SF360: That adds to the mystery of the film that there are questions left unanswered (perhaps because they weren't asked). What gave the family the strength to take on the United States?

Bar-Lev: The family's military involvement goes back to the Civil War. They have a sense for what military service means. Kevin and Pat's experience, from even before Pat was killed, didn't jibe with what the family had come to associate with military service. They felt like it was important to hold the U.S. military to the standards they felt it should hold itself to. The family, by their own admission, was not perfect. But telling the truth was something they felt was of paramount importance in the way they raised their kids. Pat was known to be a guy who made mistakes but took responsibility for his mistakes. He was candid about who he was and didn't try to make himself into someone he wasn't. All the things that were done to Pat were in an almost uncanny way the antithesis of who he and his family were. That drove the family absolutely crazy. They couldn't do anything but try to correct the record about how he died and who he was. I don't think they thought it was going to be as long a process. The military, the government, really jerked their chain. From early on, they presented the family with people who were supposed to be advocates for them, like Inspectors General, just enough removed from the system that they were not going to have fealty to the system. The Tillmans found out that those people were part of the conspiracy. You read the investigation that was done on their behalf, you open up those  3,500 pages, you see things that are spine-chilling. They feel like something that would be in a '70s Hollywood movie where the guy who is supposed to be working with you is actually working against you. When that's done to you—I don't think it would just be the Tillmans—it just makes you crazy.

That's the other thing: People accused the family of being crazy. It's very frustrating for the family to see how the media has been reporting this story. The government has been extremely smart, and extremely successful, in spinning, way after they were caught red-handed lying. They probably had meetings with their PR departments: What they did was, instead of admitting that they deliberately misled the family and the country, they kind of hat-in-hand apologized for 'clerical' errors, 'mistakes in notification.' They did a whole Keystone Cops routine, and guffawed about what kind of bozos they were, and it worked. Watch the way the mainstream reported it, and you see that after the military specifically denies the family's accusations that they were lied to, the reportage will be, 'Family receives a heartfelt apology from the government today.' And that drives the Tillmans crazy, and it should drive Americans crazy. Because it means that the journalism isn't being done. I get asked, doing Q&As, 'Are you worried about the military coming after you?' The military doesn't need to put a bullet in my mailbox the way it happens in Hollywood movies. The military knows it has a great PR team, and the PR teams is absolutely successful in eclipsing anything a small documentary could get out there. These are the reasons why the family had to try and correct the record.

Your sense of justice is that when something like the revelation of the P4 Memo happens that it's a smoking gun and that it's incontrovertible. In the movies, when the family bursts into the back of the Congressional hearing and presents the evidence for all the live television, it's incontrovertible and the bad guys have to shamefully admit, but in reality, even the black-and-white evidence isn't enough to overcome the ability of the government to spin and to get that spin across in the mainstream press.

SF360: Was the family interested in participating in the film?

Bar-Lev: It took us about seven months to convince the family to participate. To me, that speaks a lot to their sense of privacy, their healthy sense of privacy. We suffered that we came on right when, for instance, Kevin Tillman had compromised his decision to not be public by doing the Congressional hearings, because he felt they were important enough, but had been humiliated by how toothless they were and how inconsequential they were. When we came along, he said, 'Guys, I've already been down the road of trying to be public about this, and it doesn't lead anywhere, and it's not worth it to me to talk about this horrible thing in public and to, in a way, cheapen it by doing that. He helped us on background, but never consented to an interview. His other brother also refused our interview. But when we finished the film, we showed him the film, and he said, I regret not speaking to you. And being the shameless documentary filmmakers that we were, we put him on a red-eye. We said, 'Well, it's not too late!' So he was interviewed after the fact. It took us a long time to convince them.

Everyone we approached asked the Tillmans (for their permission to speak in the film.) Once you're around the Tillmans, you wake up out of the slumber that people are in about that sense of privacy. Right now we live in a time when everything is everyone's business. Everyone Twitters or blogs every  little thing they're doing. The family has never bought into that. People around them respect that. Even [General] Kensinger, who's in an adversarial role with the family, called up Dannie Tillman to ask whether he should participate in our film. I find that really emblematic.

SF360: What's been the reception since the Sundance premiere?

Bar-Lev: I'm really interested to see how the film is received. Tillman is a guy who's admired across political persuasions. There are a lot of people who profess an admiration for Pat who really only know Pat through the filter of the mainstream press about him. When I started to look into it, I found he had never said anything about why he enlisted. It wasn't until we finished the film that Jon Krakauer came out with the book [Where Men Win Glory], which has his diary in it. Without even reading the book, I flipped immediately to the place where he enlisted to see if my hunches were correct, and I read Pat's diary entry about enlistment. It doesn't spell out why he enlisted. But it also doesn't say anything about America. It doesn't say anything about patriotism, Osama bin Laden, 9/11. It confirmed to me that the decision was more complex than people understood. The mythification that I thought had happened did happen. I'm interested in the dialogue that's going to come out of this film with the people who've adamantly insisted his thinking came out of those things. I hope they're as participatory in the dialogue as they've been outspoken about Pat.

SF360: I'd like to hear more about your youth in Berkeley.

Bar-Lev: I went to Berkeley High, then Brown for college. My parents are a psychologist and a lawyer. I've always had to fight against my own inclination to associate my childhood with Pat's childhood. That's something everyone does to Pat Tillman, because he's an admirable guy. People are always trying to connect themselves to him, to own him. While I am proud we grew up in the same part of the country and I do in some ways see my mom and his mom as similar figures, but there are differences. Nobody owns Pat Tillman, not the Bay Area, not Arizona. It's a complex thing.

SF360: That comes across strongly in the film. The wilderness childhood they had was unique. While surrounded by the Bay Area, they had an atypical youth for the area, with more mystery, and perhaps more potential to develop a unique sense of self.

Bar-Lev: To me, it's so interesting. The reason we put the thing about him not watching television and not each having a phone. We were trying to be so economical about [edits]; that took the place of some very important stuff about Pat's autopsy. We put that in for a reason. It sheds light on the family's ethos. Which is as admirable as anything Pat did, and is as much a lesson for our time as anything else about Pat Tillman. It speaks to their integrity.

SF360: How is the family doing now?  What was their response to the Krakauer book? Is there a sense of closure?

Bar-Lev: There is no sense of closure. The family has more questions than answers.  The complicated thing for the family about this is: People say 'Why is this all about Pat?' to the family, it's not about Pat. They know they will never get Pat back.  To them, and they've been very clear and consistent about this since the day I met them in 2007, and they said this to Congress. This isn't about Pat.  Four words. This is about the country, this is about accountability. This is about what soldiers and their families and citizens deserve.

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