‘Tillman’ Delivers a Particular Brand of American Outrage

The methodical account of the cover-up surrounding former NFL star Pat Tillman’s death is an infuriating document

Last Updated: January 24, 2010 @ 2:41 PM

During the last 24 hours, much buzz has collected around the potential sale of the Sundance documentary "Catfish," but Amir Bar Lev’s "The Tillman Story" seems like a surefire bet as well.

A methodically structured account of the military cover-up surrounding the overseas death of former football player Pat Tillman in 2002, it delivers a particular brand of American outrage. Through revealing interviews with Tillman’s family, Bar Lev explores how the government exploited Tillman’s death to fabricate an American hero.

The tragic ramifications play out as expected, creating an eerie rumination on national pride and its discontents. Bar Lev ostensibly brings nothing new to the table, but he nevertheless organizes the evidence with skill. The result is not an expose, but rather a consolidation of story fragments into an infuriating document of military protocol gone awry.

Bar Lev’s 2007 Sundance entry "My Kid Could Paint That" was a huge breakout of the festival that eventually sold to Sony Pictures Classics. A major specialty distributor seems likely to go for "Tillman" as well, given the mainstream hook and crossover genres of political and sports movies in play.

That said, "The Tillman Story" occasionally relies on an unidentified narrator to lay down the facts of the case — one of a few ingredients that makes the movie feel more like a television special. But the evidence for the spin behind Tillman’s posthumous appraisal comes through with particular clarity.

Since no military perspective gives its side of the story, the family’s frustrations resonate. They seem less peeved about the murky circumstances surrounding the player’s death than with the publicity stunts following its aftermath. "The danger," says one, addressing such real world "The Manchurian Candidate" illusions, "is there’s an opportunity to break through."

With a cautious investigatory approach,"The Tillman Story" takes that opportunity to its extreme.

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