It was somewhat discouraging to see the size of the audience at the 7 o’clock Friday showing of The Tillman Story at the Sequoia in Mill Valley last night– 50 people, max. This a film about the very well-known Pat Tillman, who famously gave up a multi-million dollar NFL contract to join the army, whose death was enormously, endlessly and propagandistically covered, whose family forced a series of high visibility revelations about army errors, cover-ups, lies and stonewalling, and it was released just over one month ago. How is this not an interesting movie in Northern California? But to get really discouraged you had to wait to the end of the film and see one of America’s most progressive congressmen, Henry Waxman, and his so called House Over Sight Committee, do absolutely nothing to bring the military elite to account for Tillman’s death or the lies they themselves had concocted to make it seem something other than what it was. The hearings had been Mary and Patrick Tillman’s last hope to break through the fog of lies they had been battling for over 4 years. Mary’s stricken face as the gavel came down said it all.
Josh Broslin, the narrator, pointed out that the four generals and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, said “I don’t recall,” or words to that effect, 86 times during the course of the hearing, and most thickly when asked when they had first seen the infamous P-4 memo sent days after Tillman’s death, acknowledging he had been killed by his own platoon mates, and the political fallout had to be contained.
As Patrick Tillman Sr, Pat’s father, and a lawyer, said, the committee has come absolutely unprepared to ask any questions of substance. There was material aplenty, already in the public record which, if used would have caught the witnesses out in lies. Waxman quietly thanked them and adjourned the meeting. If you’ve denied yourself the relief of getting sick at government behavior in the past, this is another good opportunity.
The movie, directed by Amir Bar-Lev was some three years in the making and didn’t get started until Bar-Lev met the Tillman’s at the above mentioned congressional hearing, April 24, 2007 (and here) almost three years to the day after Tillman had been killed. It was also at this hearing that the infamous P-4 (military speak for Personal For) memo from General Stanley McChrystal to his buddy Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other top miltary brass was released to the public, including the Tillman family. This memo, too, was almost three years old. It had been sent by McChrystal on April 29, 2004, one week after Tillman’s death on April 22. It was also sent one day after McChrystal had recommended Tillman posthumously for the Silver Star, the third highest medal for bravery in the Army –citing “in the line of devastating enemy fire”– and which cannot be awarded to someone for bravery under friendly fire.
Bar Lev has talked about how difficult making the movie was, and how much was left on the cutting room floor. In the end, having received open access to NFL game tapes, he elected to give us a strong portrait of a complex young man. Even if you don’t like football and the big lugs who play it, you can’t help but like Pat Tillman. At 26 Pat Tillman quit the NFL and joined the army for reasons he didn’t want to share. His younger brother Kevin went with him. Within a few weeks in Iraq he was heard by a buddy to say the war there was totally illegal. He was offered a chance of an early out, after one tour in Iraq and elected to stay in and finish the obligation he had accepted. He read Noam Chomsky, the Koran, the Bible and publicly declared himself an atheist. He smuggled a copy of his army “in case of death” form to his wife, Marie, in which he checked off, and wrote out — No Military Honors.
When the two units he was traveling with on April 22 got separated and he, in the lead unit, heard explosive sounds behind them, he raced up a hill with others to try to defend those behind them who, they assumed, were under enemy fire. It was soldiers in that trailing group who killed Pat Tillman — though the final details, and appropriate accountability has never been taken. His brother Kevin was with the second group though not with the lead humvee doing the firing.
Watching the movie you can feel Bar-Lev’s dilemma. Should the story be about Pat, or about his mother, Mary “Dannie” Tillman who along with Pat Tillman Sr fought for three years to uncover what had really happened? Or might it have been about the investigation itself, the detective story? Mary Tillman was contacted during her searches by a Stan Goff, an ex-military blogger, who had been highly suspicious of the initial findings. Goff appears in the movie and is one of the most impressive investigator/witnesses. He helped the Tillmans solve the “complicated cross word puzzle” as he calls it, of the highly redacted 3,000 pages of Army investigation material they had in their hands. It was through this work that the original stories from the Army were definitively blown apart, without providing a final answer themselves.
Viewers rightfully get so angry at seeing the generals lie and the committee licking their manly hands something else is not generally seen. Though there was a cover-up, it was not only the one that originated in Rumsfeld’s office, with everyone hastening to follow his wink and nod. The cover up began with the first moments after the shooting. It grew out of the military culture of war exuberance and cover your ass. The likeliest explanation of what happened that day is that the men in the trailing “serial” were shooting just to shoot. They had heard some noise. They were excited. They saw human figures waving on a nearby ridge — and they “smoked them” as the saying goes. Cool! If they weren’t bad guys why were they in bad-guy territory? Once it became clear the dead was one of their own, the men on scene knew what to do; the Lieutenants who arrived soon after knew what to do. The brigade commanders on the secure radios knew what to do. The helicopter crews knew what to do. No one needed orders. CYA
Shit happens. And in war big shit happens. Don’t ask, don’t tell. You don’t need orders to shut the fuck up. You just do it. It’s part of who you become.
The problem was this time the dead soldier wasn’t just NoName Joe. It was Pat Fuckin’ Tillman, as he called out just before his death — and it was a death that was going to be noticed and would have to be explained. That’s when the big cover-up began. It was perfectly clear with Frat Boy George as Commander in Chief some wild lip-flapping was going to happen and McChrystal got worried, properly, that W might have to eat some of what he was spewing: thus the P-4.
I personally would have preferred more about the investigation proper, more direct Michael Moore assaults on the Congressional aides about their lack of preparation, a few more minutes with the piece-work of undoing the redaction, some more time with Pat Sr to hear about obvious legal tools that might have been used. I would have watched Stan Goff (here, here and especially here) for many more frames as he linked his own military experience to his deductions about what was going on. Like Pat, Stan Goff is no ordinary grunt. The footage of Pat in high school, college and pro football probably made him seem a regular, likeable kid to many viewers but I would have sacrificed some of that for more of the above.
In any case, it’s a gripping and angrifying movie. Take a bunch of friends and go see it. Wind up the buzz. A movie, and revelation of what is happening in America, should not be playing to nearly empty houses. Just don’t eat a lot before. You’ll want to be sick on your way out.