The real story of Pat Tillman

September 16, 2010

Pat Tillman was an NFL star who turned down a multimillion-dollar contract to join the U.S. military. In 2004, he died in Afghanistan by friendly fire, a fact that the U.S. government deliberately concealed--until the truth eventually came out.

Amir Bar-Lev, director of The Tillman Story, appeared on the radio show of left-wing sportswriter Dave Zirin to discuss the shocking government cover-up--and the courageous efforts of Pat's family to bring the truth to the light of day. This is a transcript of their discussion.

YOU'RE A documentary film director. You've made a wide variety of different films. Why did the story of Pat Tillman intrigue you as something you wanted to investigate?

IT WAS Pat himself. I think when you start to look into who Pat really was, you find that he's a lot more likable, a lot more heroic, a lot more admirable than people even know. Like most people, I thought he was a great American and a hero. But then when you actually find out how off the mark most of the reporting has been about him, how simplistic, you just jump at the opportunity to correct the record.

GIVE US a quick compare and contrast. Give us the image of Pat Tillman that you feel was sold to the American people and the actual human being who you got to know through his family and through making this film.

THE THING about heroes and the thing about people we're told we should look up to is you've got to be able to connect with them. The Pat Tillman who was this sort of square-jawed guy, with a one-track mind who gave it all up to serve his country--it's something you could look up to, but there's just no humanity to it. It's just this one-dimensional, simplistic thing.

Pat Tillman (left) during his tour in Afghanistan
Pat Tillman (left) during his tour in Afghanistan

Pat was a guy who was absolutely loyal and committed. He married his high-school sweetheart and was faithful to her, even though he was a football star. And all through their lives, he really just had one mate. He was a guy with very strong beliefs who was willing to question those beliefs. That's the part of the story that people don't know. That he was a guy, like the rest of us, who had doubts--who was willing to change his mind.

And in fact, he went to Iraq--that was his first tour of duty--and because he was involved in the phony Jessica Lynch operation, he started to have second thoughts about what he was involved with. He actually had questions about being in the military at that point, as probably most thinking people would.

He was actually given an opportunity to get out of the military, but didn't do it because he was a guy who was true to his word. He had committed for three years, and he wasn't going to shirk that responsibility. And that led to his death.

ONE OF the things that makes the film exemplary is the involvement of Pat's family, and the very rounded view they give of Pat as a human being. You talk to his mother Mary, who is also known as Dannie Tillman, and you talk to Pat Sr. This is a very courageous family, but they are also a very private family. How were you able to secure their involvement in this film?

WE JUST committed ourselves to not contributing to that cartoon that I was talking about before. They really felt that they had lost Pat twice. They didn't recognize him in the public persona of Pat, the persona that most people are familiar with--and they said that guy is a guy that Pat, the real Pat, would have hated.

So when we got on board and said we were going to try and paint him in a more complex light, they said they'd be willing to work with us. As you said, they are an exemplary family. I think one misperception about this film and about this story is that people feel like, "Oh, it's very important that you go see this," and that it's like almost taking medicine. You've seen it. It's actually very uplifting. This is a great family. They're funny, they are prone to dropping "f-bombs," so much so that we got slapped with an R rating.

They're just an incredible American family with a lot of love for Pat, and they didn't stop loving him once he was gone. His mother was doing all this because she hadn't stopped loving Pat. She was a schoolteacher at the time. She took on the most powerful institution in the world, the American government, and she is winning that fight. And that is what's so remarkable about this story.

THE STORY really exists in two interwoven parts. There's what we've been talking about, which is Pat as three-dimensional human being and not as cartoon. But then there's the other side of the film, which is almost a mystery, almost a "whodunnit." It's a look at the circumstances around Pat's death, and the efforts of the Tillman family to find the truth.

Going into the film, was there any gap between your opinion of how the military handled it, and what you found out as you were investigating the circumstances around Pat's death?

ABSOLUTELY. THAT'S a good question. Most people's understanding of how Pat died is wildly off the mark, because what was reported up to this point is what the government spread. It's a lie actually. This idea that it was the "fog of war" and that there were mistakes in terms of reporting--this is a cleverly disseminated lie that Dannie, Pat's mom, was able to unravel through years and years of investigative work.

We basically benefited from what she did. The government made a huge mistake when they gave her all these documents connected to Pat's death--3,500 pages of documents, almost all of them totally redacted. Never thinking that this woman, living in this little cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, would be able to make heads or tails out of what she was reading.

But she hooked up with Stan Goff, one of the original Delta Force guys. He's a retired Army Ranger. He's been in Haiti, Somalia, Vietnam. He's a really heavy-hitting Special Ops guy, and he was in Pat's platoon years before Pat was in there. And together, the two of them led the family in this investigation to uncover the truth. I think people are going to be shocked when they see how far off the mark the handed-down story has been.

LET'S GO to that because Mary Tillman says in the film that she feels that Pat's eventual death was the result of an "over-testosteroned" military force that just really wanted to shoot things and didn't take the time to actually see what they were doing--and then the cover-up happened in the aftermath of that.

Of course, she'd be the first to say that's her conjecture based on what she's been reading. I'm sure you've read on the Web that there are other people who draw more nefarious conclusions, such as that Pat was silenced because he was turning against the war. I know that can seem out there on the far reaches of the Internet, but at the same time, anytime somebody dies in such a manner and there's this cover-up, I think it's very natural that people wonder if there's a political reason.

I THINK it's really important not to engage in too much conjecture, but the point is that the people who killed Pat have never really been called to answer for their actions in a real court-martial, because the government didn't want to get to the bottom of things. The people who engaged in the conspiracy to cover it up and lied to the American people have never been called to account for their actions.

So as you said, there's more questions out there than there are answers. But the beginning point is that this was not what the government said. Even when I started working on this film three years ago, I had in my mind a kind of a "fog of war" scenario, where Pat just happened to be caught by an errant U.S. bullet in a chaotic, confusing ambush.

But it wasn't a chaotic, confusing ambush. In fact, there's very little proof, and a lot of questions, about whether there was even an ambush to begin with. And if there was, there was a couple of guys from a very, very far distance, popped off a couple rounds and ran--you know ran like hell.

And that was 10 minutes before Pat was shot. When Pat was actually shot, it was from 40 meters away. It was from a minute to two minutes of shooting, which is an ungodly amount of time. He had time to wave his hands, to throw a smoke grenade to indicate that he was a friendly.

And the guys who shot him, in their testimony, in some of these sham investigations, they admit that they knew they were shooting, that there were friendlies up on the hillside where Pat was. So there's just a lot of questions, and I think people are right to be trying to press for answers.

HAVE THERE ever been any answers given to why Pat's uniform was burned and why his military journal was destroyed?

NOT REALLY. The conjecture is that it was proof. U.S. military bullets have green tips. So it would have been immediately evident to anybody that he was killed by our own men, so it had to be destroyed.

But this was a conspiracy that was a bottom-up and a top-down conspiracy. The soldiers on the ground knew right away that it was a disaster--that they had killed the most famous enlisted man. But then something kicked in. The higher-ups kicked into gear within 24 hours. Everybody knew it was friendly fire.

And then one of the most shocking parts of this whole story is the way they throw the soldiers under the bus. We've been very gratified that people aren't perceiving this as a film that is anti-soldier or anti-military in some way, because really, it's these politicians and the brass who are responsible for this cover-up that are the anti-soldier guys. It's shocking in the film to see the way they force these soldiers to lie to each other--the way they throw this general under the bus as a kind of a scapegoat.

The conspiracy went as high as the White House. Nobody's ever taken responsibility for it. As recently as a week ago, they were continuing to lie by saying, "We apologize to the Tillman family for the mistakes we made." They chalk the whole thing up to bureaucratic mistakes, which is itself a lie. Dannie was able to prove, in those documents, that this was a deliberate attempt, not a mistake or a misstep or an error.

THE FILM is absolutely fantastic. I can't say it enough, congratulations to you. The question that I keep coming back to is whether you are having a difficult time getting this message out. Because the film is rockin', it's got a great rating on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site, but I read a very negative review in the New York Post. I don't know if you saw that.

I DID, but that that and one far-right-wing site were the only ones, and I have to say that we're absolutely flattered that there have been so many good reviews.

DOES THAT make you frustrated, though, when you see the New York Post review?

NO, IT doesn't. The New York Post is owned by Murdoch. These guys have an agenda. But we really have never seen the film as a lefty or partisan film.

YEAH, IT doesn't come across that way.

IT DOESN'T to anybody except for the Post, so I'm fine with that.

BUT IT'S so disgusting, because the main reason why the Post reviewer gave the film two stars and a negative review was, he said, that you were making a whole lot of something out of nothing--that all you had was that Pat died and there was a waiting period because they wanted to be careful and make sure they had all the facts. And Mary Tillman morphs into Cindy Sheehan, a person who once said bad things about Israel. You saw the way they connected those dots?

YOU'RE RIGHT. Well, it's shoddy reporting.

"MARY TILLMAN is just another Cindy Sheehan, and did you know what Cindy Sheehan once said about Israel? Therefore you must not like this film."

YOU'RE RIGHT, I had forgotten about that. That's very shoddy. Those people had no shortage of words to talk about Pat Tillman before the truth started coming out about him. They trumpeted Pat's service, and they said volumes about Pat. But now they think that this film manipulates Pat's memory, which is crazy because it's a film made with his platoon mates and his family.

So what they're basically saying is, "We know Pat better than you guys know Pat, than his family knows Pat." And they are actually saying, "We're not going to see the film because we don't want to give $11 to these Hollywood guys." And of course, we're not Hollywood guys, we're documentary guys.

But I'm really glad you asked me how the film is doing, because I'm going to hang my ego up and just grovel to your listeners for just a second. When you see the film, you'll see how far off the mark the reporting from the mainstream press has been on this story, and it's shocking. But if you want these kinds of films to make a difference, you've got to see them in the theaters.

You can't wait until they're on Netflix and stuff. I know it's easy to do that. But if you want to support this kind of moviemaking, to correct the record about a lot of these things, you've got to try and support these films. It's not because it's going to pad my wallet or anything like that. These films, if you don't see them in the first couple of weeks when they arrive in your town, they go. The exhibiters say, "We've got to show the Expendables, we have to put food on the table," which I totally understand.

But as I said earlier, this film is not medicine. You couldn't write this stuff. It's got humor, it's got world-class conspiracy, and when you see the way Rumsfeld and those guys got away with it, it's like watching a Mafia movie.

IT'S UNBELIEVABLE, and you did a great job. It's outrageous that on political principle they would tell people not to see a film that actually does right by the soldiers. It does right by basic questions of democracy and transparency, and I'll say it to my listeners, it does right by the art of film itself. It's a crazily entertaining movie. People should see it.

First broadcast on Edge of Sports radio.

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