Thursday, October 21, 2010

London Film Fest 2010 Day 9 - THE TILLMAN STORY

Pat Tillman was a pro-footballer who gave up a million dollar contract to serve in the US Army in Iraq and then Afghanistan. He was an interesting guy - seems to have had a lot of integrity and charisma - but he wasn't some bible-thumping, pure of heart, All-American hero. He was a normal kid, very talented at sport, who joined the army. When Pat Tillman was killed, the US Army were keen to lionise him as a Patriot, a Hero and a poster-boy for the war. The story was depersonalised and publicised - Tillman wasn't Tillman, warts and all, but an Archetype. They covered up the fact that his death was the result of friendly fire, and arguably with no extenuating circumstances. And even when his mother and father pushed for the truth, a Congressional hearing only resulted in equivocation from the upper reaches of the chain of command.

This documentary allows the Tillman family to reclaim the Tillman Story from the US Army and to come to some closer approximation of an objective truth. But the project is itself fraught. Because, in using the Tillman Story to expose the PR machine within the US Army, director Amir Bar-Lev is also spinning his own version of the Tillman Story - now to excoriate the forces who originally exploited it. To its credit, I think the documentary is highly aware of this problem and exposes the ambiguity at the heart of the project. As much as the parents have exposed the crimes at the heart of the case, the myth of Tillman is already out there - the statues have been carved, the iconic images imprinted - and you can't put that back in the box. Moreover, as much as they want the US Army to respect Tillman's request for privacy, in agreeing to participate in this doc - by writing a book - in using his name for charitable causes - they are also part of that machine, albeit with earnest and good intentions.

THE TILLMAN STORY is then, a story about a story. It's about authors fighting over a narrative for their own purposes. But, let's be honest, government manipulation of the facts to support government policy is not new in life, and it's certainty not new in film. This shit has been happening since Homer, and in the movies you can watch Preston Sturges' superb HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. Call me cynical, but there isn't enough new in the US Army using Pat Tillman to be interesting in and of itself. I wanted to see a rougher interrogative technique to make the story grip more. I wanted to see more interrogation of the US Army participants - particularly General Kensinger who was in charge of Tillman's unit. And I needed to be taken through the chain of command in more detail - I wanted to get into the case - other just seeing an org chart thrown up on screen and vague accusations being thrown.

If this story - the story of fighting over the story - is as old as the Greeks - what's new in the Iraqi/Afghani wars is the co-option of the media. That's because this is the first war with a) many competing 24 hour news channels b) embedded reporters and c) unprofitable editorial. In other words, this war happened at a moment of juncture with the commercial death of the old high quality foreign news stringers and the rise of content hungry 24 hours news channels. So, I think Amir Bar-Lev would have been better employed examining the complicity of the media in becoming the mouthpiece of the army in this matter. Sure, he hints at the media's complicity early on, but really, after that, he's going for the army not the journos.

So, often-times, I felt Amir Bar-Lev was asking the wrong questions, or not enough questions of the Army. And I felt his choice of focusing on the Army as a manipulator at the expense of the media as enablers was a misjudgement. But where he really does a great job is just letting the footage roll uneditorialised. Classic examples would include footage of the various ceremonies at which football teams decommissioned Tillman's number. The faces of the family say it all - their disgust and incomprehension. Even better the sheer crass vulgarity of having cheer-leaders cheer in front of them. It's in moments like this where the documentary becomes truly powerful and memorable. But, in not exploring the complicity of the media, this documentary looses the fresh insights of a film like IN THE LOOP, which took on the political-media nexus in all its complexity, and with a foul mouth that Pat Tillman might have appreciated.

THE TILLMAN STORY played Sundance and Toronto 2010 and was released in the US in August.

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