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Pat Tillman

"The Tillman Story" | a film review by Gary Chew

GARY CHEW/Sacramento

The most profound ad lib in director Amir Bar-Lev's film, "The Tillman Story," comes from a seasoned military Special Ops guy. He says something to the effect: "The movie could be an opportunity for reality to break through."

The story of football great and Army Ranger, Pat Tillman, still weighs heavily on the U.S. It seems like a perfectly made-up story out of Hollywood, but really happened. And the final part of it has as sorry an ending as any ever created in La La Land.

To review: the Arizona State star athlete put his lucrative NFL career on hold and unceremoniously enlisted in the US Army. He fought and died in Afghanistan, struck down by friendly fire from part of his own platoon that was separated from the rest, and out of radio contact due to the rugged terrain. Although it's not how the military had it up front.

It was a "Jessica Lynching,"* so to speak. In death, Pat was cast as heroic, laying down his life for comrades in a Taliban ambush. The government posthumously awarded him the Silver Star, and praises to his unflinching valor were publicly sung by George W. Bush, and on down.

We now know the Tillman family was punked by U.S. authorities. Pat's brother, Kevin, also in Pat's unit, was ordered to keep a shut mouth about how his brother really died. Kevin and another G.I. close to Pat in the unit were quickly whisked back to the States in a military cargo plane.

The story of the whole SNAFU is pretty much common knowledge today about how resilient the Tillman family was and continues to be, including Pat's wife, Marie. Pat's mom and dad and siblings proved not the sort that go gentle into that good night when official lies are told. Despite the coarse language the Tillman males use in the picture, they appear to have a strong respect for truth, which is especially underscored by Tillman's mother, Mary, who, the film suggests, is where the family's attitude takes much of its strength.

"The Tillman Story" shines as a meticulously detailed, but still engrossing, if not enraging film: one of the most moving clips shows Rich Tillman eulogizing his brother, ad lib, at a memorial service. With a knife, you can cut the pathos and anger shown by the younger Tillman---not a minced word spoken. Television news chose not to carry Rich's eulogy, even with bleeping some of his words of rage.

Mark Monroe's script makes clear that Pat Tillman was an extraordinary person, with a sense of integrity and honor that measure beyond what the distortions about his demise suggest as heroism. But one of Pat's traits wasn't related as news of his death spun through the news cycles. Tillman was an atheist!

The other soldier who was spirited away from the battlefield with Pat's brother was almost as close to Pat as Kevin. His name is Bryan O'Neal. He was with Pat when the friendly fire began. The film has several moving moments as O'Neal speaks of the respect he holds for Tillman. One of the qualities that most impressed him about Tillman was how accepting Pat was of Specialist O'Neal, a Mormon. O'Neal had once found Pat, in quarters, reading the Book of Mormon. Tillman was a devotee of the leader of America's Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson of Massachusetts.

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman

Bryan testified at a Congressional inquiry that, shouting to tell the friendlies to cease fire, his buddy's last words, were "Hey, I'm Pat F*#king Tillman!"

"I’m Pat F*#king Tillman" was the first choice as a title for the documentary, but changed by Amir Bar-Lev…in order to increase the chances language-sensitive, prospective viewers of getting information the director of Hebraic descent had put into his film.

Many up and down the chain of command chose not to relate just how Tillman was killed. O'Neal, when ordered back to the platoon following his being taken from the scene, refused to return to that unit. Bonding among soldiers in battle remains as cementing a relationship as any, it seems, in the story about Pat Tillman... even when one is a believer and one isn't. I found this, among many, to be the documentary's most powerful message.

To close: a personal anecdote, not related to the tragic death of a star football player and US Army Ranger, but the quiet, anonymous and welcome birth of my son.

I was on Army Reserve duty in Louisiana in 1966 when he was born. The Army gave me time to return to Tulsa to be with my wife and son. I drove my car from Fort Polk to the Shreveport, Louisiana airport (about 100 miles) and caught a Braniff flight onto Tulsa so I could be there ASAP. While in Tulsa, one of the local newspapers ran an item about my sudden trip back to the city. The story had it that the military, to expedite the trip to see my new son, had flown me from Fort Polk to Shreveport in a chopper.

On duty at Fort Polk, I worked at my unit's Public Information Office. On returning from Tulsa to Polk, I didn't say anything to anyone there about the item I'd read in the newspaper about my "helicopter ride."

I've always thought, though, flying in one---might be a lot fun.

The good twist in all of this unfortunate, recent history of Cpl. Pat Tillman is that he turned out to be an even larger hero than the military purported him to be---Silver Star and all.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, "The Tillman Story," is worth your while and the price of your ticket. It's likely though, in the future, you'll neither see it on non-premium cable nor broadcast television.

*Jessica Lynch, if you'll remember, was the young West Virginia soldier trumped up to be a heroine by the Pentagon in March 2003, shortly after the initiation of the Iraq War, from which the US is to be disengaged in the summer of 2011. Tillman's documentary, which was released in early August covers some of her ordeal, as well.

"The Tillman Story" official site.

Now in limited release.

See Yahoo Movies-Tulsa for theaters and times.

Gary Chew can be reached at garychew@comcast.net,
Facebook.com/justin.playfair and Twitter.com/orwellingly.

Copyright © 2010, Gary Chew. All rights reserved.

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