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Grilled: ‘Tillman Story’ Director Amir Bar-Lev

Filmmaker talks about life, death, mythology and the coverup that continues to this day


“The Tillman Story” is a documentary about Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004. But more than that, it’s a movie about storytelling – about how Tillman, who left an NFL career to enlist in the military but never talked about why he made that decision, was painted as an uncomplicated hero and used as a poster boy for the war effort, and about how his death from friendly fire led to an immediate cover-up that reached high into the Bush administration. Even when the story unraveled, the military continued to paint it as a bungled investigation rather than a case of deliberate deception. 

A week after the film’s “R” rating was upheld at an MPAA appeals-board hearing, director Amir Bar-Lev sat down theWrap to discuss his film, which the Weinstein Company will release on Friday, August 20.

Amir Bar-LevYou had an encounter with the MPAA appeals board last week.

Yeah, I did, and it did not go as planned. You know, when you spend three years on a subject, it becomes a lens through which you see the world, and you see evidence of patterns everywhere.

The first thing that happened to remind me that this story is as alive as ever was in the L.A. Times when Pat’s mom did a column. She took the forward to her paperback book, we cut it down and submitted it to the newspaper. I cut out one sentence that said, “When General Stanley McChrystal was sacked, I got contacted by many reporters. I was uncomfortable speaking with them, because I got the sense that they were trying to get me to say ‘I told you so.’”

But the Times came back to us with something that sounded like “I told you so.” So we went back to them and said, “Could you make this change and that change? We don’t want it to sound like she’’s saying ‘I told you so.’ They made those changes, but then they titled the column “I Told You So.”

And I thought, this is so outrageous, but it’s exactly  what’s been happening since Pat enlisted, before he died. People not only put words in this family’s mouth, but the exact words that they would not like to say. Words that mortify them.

And you think the MPAA ruling falls into that pattern as well?

Yes. It was this idea that the story doesn’t fit into what we need it to be. We’d rather have a sanitized version of war, and a sanitized version of Pat Tillman. The MPAA is telling us that we can’t handle anything but a sanitized version of this film, or of the grieving and soldiering contained within it. Somebody said on a comment blog, “If they’re giving it a label, they should give it the label, ‘Rated R for brief profanity uttered while consumed with grief and being shot at.’”

Did you expect a different result?

Yeah, honestly, I did. Because we had this example of [the 2004 Iraq doc] “Gunner Palace” to go by, which is a quite comparable film.  I’m led to understand it had more profanity than ours, and yet we received different ratings. [“Gunner Palace” won its appeal and had its “R” rating overturned.]

Pat TillmanI suspect that the big difference is that the profanity in “Gunner Palace” comes from soldiers in combat, while most of yours is spoken after the fact in anger at the government. I guess that makes it worse.

Well, we didn’t write the film. We didn’t use the word f— in order to titillate anybody. We had to use it, because it was in Pat’s last words – and also, by a great coincidence, it was Pat Senior’s choice of word in his letter to the government. He just meant it to vent, but he didn’t know that somewhere in the arcana of government regulations, that type of language in a letter immediately triggers an automatic investigation. I love that part of their story, because it’s also fitting in the sense that to me so much of what the story is about is humanity at war with symbolism.

At the memorial service, when Pat’s younger brother is saying, “He’s not in heaven, he’s f—ing dead,” so many people think he’s raising a banner for atheism. And of course it has to do with religion vs. atheism, but to me, more importantly, the family is saying, “Let us grieve. Let us cry. Let us tear our shirts asunder.”

What Maria Shriver and other people who spoke at the memorial were doing was saying, “Your sense of loss is not as real as this transcendent meaning or truth that makes Pat’s loss not such a bad thing.” And that’s a very unfair thing to say to a grieving family.

When you’re making a movie about a guy like this, where so many people have tried to misrepresent his story for their own purposes, you’d damn well better get his story right.

Oh god, yeah.

You’re putting real pressure on yourself.

Thanks for saying that. (laughs) You are right. That’s why we worked on the film for three years, and that’s why we edited it for a year. I won’t say we didn’t misstep here and there, but I think we corrected it. Because we were constantly asking ourselves that question.

It’s like they say, nature abhors a vacuum. We’re storytellers, we can’t abide any place where our story doesn’t get to go. And when Pat Tillman said, “I’m not going to tell you why I enlisted, I’m not going to do interviews,” people may have begrudgingly praised him, but in reality everybody was ticked off. And the minute he died, we had to just rush in to fill the vacuum. It’s shameless, because everything we know about Pat Tillman didn’t come from him. It came from concentric circles around him of people purporting to tell us what he thought and what he wanted and why he did the things he did. And it became a Paul Bunyan story.

The Tillman Story posterWhat drew you to the story?

There are two big parts to this. There’s how he died, and how he lived. And so little of that, on both sides, was accurately reported. Most of the reporting that’s done on current events is so superficial that if you spend just a little more time looking at it – I mean, I’m taking about a couple of days– you see that there is a wide gulf between what appears to have happened and what people think happened. 

We knew right away that there was a lot there to report, in terms of the cover up. And the same goes for how he lived. You start connecting the dots, and you go, wait a minute, where did everybody get the idea that he was this  way? Where is the primary text for this? There is none. You see how one thing led to another, and suddenly it’s like “Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” You could see it was a “Liberty Valance” story early on, and any filmmaker or journalist would jump at the opportunity to get involved in that.

It’s remarkable that despite the fact that a good number of people knew exactly what happened when Tillman was killed, the army immediately decided to tell a different story. And amazingly, I guess they actually thought it would hold up.

That’s a good point, and I don’t have an answer to it. One thing that’s important to understand, it was not just a top-down conspiracy, but a bottom-up conspiracy too. The first thing out of [fellow Ranger] Bryan O’Neal’s mouth after Pat was killed was “Our guys f—ing did it!” And the first thing that was said to him was “Shut your f—ing mouth!” That wasn’t Donald Rumsfield, or Dick Cheney parachuting in and saying, “We’re gonna do this.” That was his team leader, who just ran over there. Everybody knew early on that this was not to be reported as it happened. I’ve always found that very interesting.

But the story started to unravel right away.

The other important thing to remember was that everybody knew what had really happened within 24 hours. And they had this big problem on their hands. They had reported this John Wayne death lie, and then they realized exactly what you just said, that there was no way they could pull this off – especially because five or six weeks after Pat was killed, 600 men from his battalion were rotating back to Seattle, and they knew that all those guys were going to talk.

It was an act of extreme hubris to think that they could get away with this. But then they began to backpedal, and that’s one of the things that is hard to make people understand. People say the family was able to prove in fact that it was friendly fire, five weeks later. They don’t understand that the friendly fire announcement was part of the lie. They realized that they couldn’t keep the John Wayne story, so they came up with something really smart. They said, “Everything we told you the first time was true, but we just finished this internal investigation and we figured out that he happened to be caught by an errant US bullet. But the whole story we told you still stands.”

And whatever happened that shouldn’t have happened, it’s the fault of one general who has conveniently retired.

Correct. That’s one of the most egregious things. There are several outstanding lies. The idea that it happened in “the fog of war” is itself a lie. Another is that this was bungled. They gave a Keystone Cops schtick: we made mistakes and clerical errors in terms of notification, and we’re never going to do it again, and the Tillman family deserves our humblest apology. That’s a lie, and it carries forth to this very moment.

There’s a big difference between a mistake and an act of deceit. In fact, calling it a mistake is covering up your deceit. At the congressional hearings, one of the generals said, “It’s hard to think how we screwed this thing up, but we screwed it up.” It’s a phony mea culpa, and that’s what drives the family crazy. The military got up there at the hearing and told more deliberate lies, but the headline on the news was “Family finally receives apology.”

So in a way, they have  gotten away with it.