Six years after US sports star Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, his family’s search for truth in the face of a US government cover-up has gripped audiences at the Sundance Film Festival.
Tillman, 27, was portrayed as an all-American hero when he turned his back on a multi-million-dollar American football career to enlist in the US military following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The initial account of his death — that he had died engaging enemy fire — elevated the Army Ranger to a near mythical status which was sealed by a nationally televised memorial service.
But eventually the truth emerged: the 27-year-old had died in a friendly fire incident and senior US Army commanders conspired to cover it up, in an attempt to use Tillman as a propaganda tool.
The story of Tillman’s death and his family’s quest for answers forms the basis of “The Tillman Story,” director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, which has been one of the most talked-about films at Sundance.
“I don’t think we expected the story to become so complex, and I didn’t know how much I would admire Pat Tillman in the end,” Bar-Lev told AFP.
“This is very much a story about the Tillman family. We wanted to stay as close as possible of their experience and the experience of frustration, the experience of not having all the answers.”
The film also highlights the relentless personality of Tillman’s mother Mary, who had been skeptical of the official account of her son’s death.
Her appearance before Congress to condemn the cover-up is one of the most powerful moments of the film. “You have to see it to believe it,” Bar-Lev says. She is a force of nature.”
The director says that the more he explored Tillman, the more he realized that the way his life had been portrayed in the media was a myth.
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“In some ways, Pat Tillman is the opposite of the myth,” Bar-Lev said. “The myth is that he is a man who gives up his career, his safety and everything over a principle.
“But when you look at Pat Tillman, you find that he was a guy who constantly questioned himself, constantly tried to see the things from a different point of view, who was an atheist but who read the Koran and the book of Mormon.
“He was inquisitive. And that’s very different than the way he was portrayed.”
Bar-Lev believes Tillman represented the kind of patriotic sacrifice in the wake of 9/11 which Americans “talked about but that we didn’t do.”
“I think that — it’s my personal feeling — in this country, Americans did a lot of talk about sacrifice and collective service after 9/11 but after a few weeks, that sentiment evaporated for many people,” he said.
“I’ve always thought that he acted, for the people, as a proxy.
“I think also that war is ambiguous. But a country, in times of war, hopes for certitudes, not ambiguity.
“And Pat Tillman, for some reason, became the poster-child for these certitudes that we wanted.”