Interview with Amir Bar-Lev, director of "The Tillman Story"


Now that the Iraq War is over we can focus more of our anxiety, outrage, and depression on another flummoxed and bloody miscue, the war in Afghanistan. Already Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's "Restrepo" has recounted with harrowing detail of the day-to-day trials and heroism of an American  outpost in one of the country's deadliest frontiers. This Friday Amir Bar-Lev's documentary "The Tillman Story" investigates a controversial, tragic, and instructive story that occurred earlier in the war.

In 2002 Pat Tillman, star safety for the Arizona Cardinals, gave up his lucrative NFL career  to volunteer to serve in the US Army Rangers. Two years later he was dead, killed in action in what the Pentagon first claimed to be a fire fight with insurgents. He was credited with heroic actions saving the other members of his squad and was awarded a Silver Star.

But something didn't seem quite right to the family, and lead by Tillman's indomitable mother Dannie, they uncovered a tale involving friendly fire, an official cover-up, and ultimately the exploitation and falsification of a tragedy for the purpose of propagandizing the administration's foreign policy.

I spoke to the director when the film was shown last June at the Provincetown International Film Festival. He had just returned from a trip to another country that had engaged the US in a protracted, ambiguous conflict -- Vietnam.

PK: So you just came back from Vietnam then?

Amir Bar-Lev: I was just purely on vacation with my wife and daughter. My one year old daughter.

PK: So it wasn't like you were showing your movie at a festival.

ABL: No.

PK: I don't think they really have any festivals in Vietnam. It's a big tourist stop though. It seems like a really inexpensive, beautiful place to go.

ABL: Vitnam? It's unbelievably cheap and you can pretty readily get off the tourist beaten path. It's largely undeveloped.

PK: They've shaken off that whole war thing, I guess?

ABL: Weirdly. I mean, they don't even care.

PK: I guess a country that's been at war for so long is just glad that it's not happening any longer.

ABL: They're totally nice to Americans there. And we went to Laos, which also was bombed to smithereens and were warmly welcomed.

PK: I guess they're happy to see us if we're not dropping bombs on them.

ABL: And they're happy to see our money.

PK: I wonder if this will be the case with Afghanistan, because we've been there longer than we were in Vietnam. Did you have any interest in this topic, the war, or anything, before you made this movie?

ABL: I'm an avid news junkie, but I didn't come to this story through the war. The way it happened was, my partner and producer John Battsek is a big sports fan. So he knew this story as a sports fan. He introduced me to the story, and I was intrigued. What it says about war, what it says about soldiers, what it says about the way a conspiracy works are all very interesting to me. But I think, fundamentally, what is most interesting to me is what it says about mythology, what it says about the nature of heroism. While I've spent three years thinking about it, talking about it, investigating the government's culpability in this case, I'm equally interested in the culture at large's culpability.

PK: Well they need somebody like that. They need that sort of narrative.

ABL: That's right. Narrative is a good word. In a way, it's a story about stories and so it's a film about the Tillmans and Pat Tillman. But it's also a film about who we wanted Pat Tillman to be and who we needed Pat Tillman to be.

PK: I was reading that you had your own Pat Tillman for a while there. That he was sort of this subversive lefty.

ABL: Oh yeah, I said that on one occasion. But I think that's in the vein that we're talking about. That's one of the very compelling parts about this story. It's the way that everybody who admires Pat Tillman also kind of wants to own him for themselves. The emblematic shot in the film is that "Our Hero" t-shirt that somebody scrawled at an impromptu memorial set up for him. Instead of underlining "Hero" they underlined "Our."

PK: Was that at the same one where Maria Shriver said "You're Home Now?"

ABL: Yeah, it's outside there. Where people left wreaths.

PK: That was really quite the scene where the brother came up with the glass of Guinness and said "No. He's fucking dead."

ABL: Well, the family has had to fight on a bunch of different fronts. The obvious front that a lot of people know about is the way that they've had to try to find out the truth about how he died. But the other way they've had to fight is to kind of preserve his humanity and to defend his memory from the accretion of this sort of caricature that has settled on him in death. And that's what made them so, well, challenging is probably the wrong word, because it was a lovely challenge, and a refreshing challenge to work with a family that is so committed to demythologizing and resisting hagiography.

PK: The older brother, did you ever get to speak with him?

ABL: Oh, yeah, we spoke with him. The family in general has a very healthy sense of what's private and what's public in a time where that sense is sorely lacking in most people. And the older brother Kevin, from the moment Pat died you didn't see any reason why he should become a public figure about it. He compromised that position in order to do the congressional hearing. It was such a letdown for them that he just swore off any more public appearances. So we got involved after the congressional hearing.

PK: So that was archival footage.

ABL: Yeah, we were there, but we had met them that day, so we hadn't yet begun shooting. But he helped us on background, but he didn't want to be in the film.

PK: You mentioned the hero narrative. You studied comparative religions in college, so is that kind of the point of view you're coming from?

ABL: Yeah, I think so. It is a lens that I tend to see things through so far, and I think if you look at anything, you find some of these same processes that human beings are incapable of getting away from, which is that imposition of a narrative. And I guess in the case of "My Kid Could Paint That"


and this film, you really get a sense for the violence that can be a part of that. The violence, even when you're admiring somebody, you're committing a sort of violence against them by imposing this narrative and sheering off any part of their character that doesn't fit into this little cartoon box that you've created.

PK: There's this Messianic narrative going on here, he's dying for our sins.

ABL: That's so true, and I'm so glad you said that because not many people pick up on that. I can't tell you how many times we heard variations of that. Listen, don't get me started. The whole issue of Pat Tillman's "sacrifice" is fascinating. And it's in the very background of the film and I'm glad that it comes through a bit. Number one, I think he serves as a proxy for people, for all the self sacrifice that was a part of our discourse right after 9/11 that just evaporated weeks later. The fact that he went and did something is seen as a proxy.

PK: Everybody else would just have to shop.

ABL: Exactly, everybody else just go back in, don't sacrifice, just shop. Then there's also this sort of weird maudlin mantra about the 3.6 million dollar contract he gave up. I read this book by Barbara Ehrenreich called "Blood Rites." I don't buy everything she says, but she has this really interesting idea that war and religion were kind of born out of the same thing, which was our need to inculcate people with a sense that there was something more important than rationality out there because, and this is where it gets a little bit thin, but she says, when we were hunting in tribes and a saber tooth tiger would come, every man would just say "Fuck it!" and run to the nearest tree. But one had to imbue people with this sense of duty to the collective to sacrifice themselves. It's like, don't worry, even though it seems like you're giving up your life, you're going to a better place. There are these transcendent ideas that are more important than the rational ones. And, I mean, you don't have to buy the tiger thing. But you get the sense of that kind of trumpeting, over and over again of the fact that "He had everything, he had everything, he had it all but he gave it up" is in some way, on some subconscious level used to kind of tell young men, "and you could do this too." And it's such a simplification of why he enlisted and of the reasons why people enlist.

PK: Does he write somewhere, in his diary, the actual reasons for his enlisting, which you don't mention in the film?

ABL: No, he doesn't actually mention them in the diary.

PK: But there's a book that's been written about it. [ Jon Kracauer's 2009 "Where Men Win Glory"]

ABL: And the book has his diary. And it was made at the same time we were making our film, so we didn't get to look at it.

PK: Would you have used it if you did see it, even if he didn't want it to be seen.

ABL: I wouldn't have been able not to, yeah. Wait, you mean the diary, or just the book?

PK: The diary.

ABL: Well I may have been like, Monday morning quarterbacking. There are certain things that I'd be lying if I said we wish we could have gotten. The interview with Kevin, the diary. We tried to get those things and we didn't get them. And again, I may be rationalizing, but I feel the film, it pushed the film in other directions. Less on the nose directions that I'm happy with. With regard to the diary, the family just wasn't interested in a film that sought to deconstruct or psychoanalyze Pat. And you don't want to rule out anything when you go into making a documentary so I got, I won't say that I was on board with that from the start, but over time, I started to realize that there is a very interesting story here as we discussed earlier about who we wanted Pat Tillman to be over who Pat Tillman actually was.

But the diaries, as you read it, of course, we flipped right to that page. And he doesn't actually talk about his reasons for enlisting but he doesn't talk about any of the reasons related to his enlisting like 9/11 and patriotism and things like that.

PK: Do you think it was maybe an extension of his knocking the crap out of people on the football field? Do you think of him as sort of this gung-ho guy, motivated by the kinds of things that Chris Hedges talks about in his book "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning?"

ABL: I think it was a combination of a bunch of different things. And it's hard, because I don't want to speculate, because it would be disrespectful to the family, but I'll just tell you that I think there was that, I think that he did respond to a sense of duty after 9/11. I think he, ya know, it's in the film.


NEXT: Interview with Amir Bar-Lev, Part II: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Noam Chomsky?

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