The Tillman Story (R) (94 min.) — The first image in Amir Bar-Lev's documentary is a mesmerizing take of Pat Tillman staring directly into the camera, filmed for a college football game broadcast. His handsomely chiseled face is the very model of a hero's. All Tillman is asked to do is state his name and position several times. Obviously the lack of action gets on his nerves.
In that simple but extraordinary shot, we learn everything about Tillman to make his death by friendly fire in Afghanistan a tragedy. Bar-Lev devotes the rest of his documentary to make everything official that happened afterward an outrage.
Tillman was a top-tier defensive back in the NFL when the events of 9/11 ignited his desire to do something, anything, for his country. He quit football and joined the U.S. Army with his brother, both becoming Rangers deployed to Afghanistan. Tillman refused to speak publicly about enlisting so it wouldn't appear like grandstanding. A Taliban ambush in a deathtrap canyon led a panicked, trigger-happy soldier to accidentally kill Tillman in 2004.
Rather than telling the truth, the Pentagon told Tillman's family and the nation that he died with guns blazing, charging toward the enemy like John Wayne. It was a travesty of spin, trying to muster patriotic support for a war growing unpopular. Bar-Lev traces the family's tireless fight to know why their son was used as a propaganda tool, using Pvt. Jessica Lynch's staged rescue as a parallel example.
The Tillman Story lays out its cards in a deductive, deliberate fashion that is tough to dispute. In its best sequence, Bar-Lev presents a montage of pages with key highlighted words from pounds of paperwork the Army hoped the Tillmans wouldn't have patience to sift through. Their margin notes noting contradictions and vital redactions prove otherwise.
Cracks appear in the official story when platoon mate Russell Baer — assigned by the Army to lie at Tillman's camera-op funeral — breaks his ordered silence. Like Watergate, the coverup proves more destructive than the original offense. Bar-Lev stretches to trace the deception all the way to George W. Bush's Oval Office but doesn't entirely make that connection. The rest of the chain of command comes off as dim opportunists, at best.
Bar-Lev also draws an endearing family portrait with home movies and talking head memories. The Tillmans seem like an edgy All-American family with three boys behaving risky and talking dirty, a Mom rolling her eyes and a Dad smiling behind her back. Those scenes make later ones heartbreaking, in one of the year's best documentaries. A (BayWalk in St. Petersburg; Veterans 24 in Tampa)
Steve Persall, Times film critic