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Back in 2002, amidst the fresh wounds and confusion post 9/11, professional football player Pat Tillman stunned the nation when he gave up his career and lofty guaranteed contract to join the Army and become a Ranger, instantly becoming a symbol of patriotic fervor and unflinching duty.

After his death in April 2004 while still serving in Afghanistan, the military first reported of Tillman’s heroics as he unselfishly risked his own life to save his fellow soldiers during an enemy ambush. It was only later that the truth was revealed, Tillman, in fact, was killed by “friendly fire.”

Awarded the Silver Star for valor, it seemed the Army was using Tillman’s image as recruitment propaganda, turning him into a modern day Audie Murphy (the most decorated American soldier of World War II and a celebrated movie star for many years after the war). Tillman’s family, however, staunch supporters of the truth, had questions that need answering, and they were committed to uncovering the facts. Enter documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev.

“Pat’s heroic in all the ways except the way they say he was,” director Bar-Lev, whose film The Tillman Story hits theaters August 20, points out. “And I think any documentary filmmaker would jump at the chance to correct the record. The Pat Tillman that’s out there is a very simplistic rendition of the reality of the guy. And the more you take away this Paul Bunyan version of Pat Tillman the more you like him.”

Originally from Berkeley, California, Bar-Lev, who now calls Brooklyn home (where he lives with his wife and infant daughter), also produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary Trouble the Water about the devastating floods of Hurricane Katrina.

Although no one will ever question Tillman’s unwavering sense of duty, those around him admit that he did begin to question the “War on Terror” and the U.S.’ occupation in Afghanistan, yet another reason why it was so shameful how his death was initially covered up and spun to help the cause.

“When you make up these Hollywood stories,” Bar-Lev notes,
“you’re taking away soldiers’ true heroism.”

A complex individual, Pat Tillman was a zealous linebacker known for leaving it all on the field and according to Bar-Lev, “The Greeks could have written this [tragedy]. The caricature of Pat is the opposite of who he was. Here was a guy that constantly challenged all of his beliefs. He was an atheist who read the Koran and the Book of Mormon. He was fascinated by religion.”

Filming for three years, Bar-Lev doesn’t offer all the answers in The Tillman Story because the truth surrounding Tillman death is still mysterious. After the lies and mistruths were washed away, we’re left with adrenaline-filled U.S. soldiers, fueled by their craving for action, who said after his death: “I was excited,” and “I wanted to stay in the firefight.”

“If our audiences feel somewhat bewildered about how five soldiers could have fired for a minute to two minutes from 40 meters at a guy who was waving his hands at them and throwing smoke grenades at them, screaming ‘friendly!’ then they’re in good company,” Bara-Lev admits. His family is bewildered too.”

Unsure of what his next project will be, the filmmaker hopes audiences can get past the mythical Pat Tillman and get to know the real man. “The soldiers that risk and sacrifice their lives for our country deserve better. We should all be aware of what war really is. As Dannie Tillman (Pat’s mother) says, ‘war is bloody, painful and terrifying,’ and that’s really what one of the great lessons of this story is. I hope when people see this film they’re outraged and feel that there should be accountability. We should really take the time to find out a little bit about the people we lionize.”

The Tillman Story is now playing at ArcLight Cinemas Hollywood and The Landmark in West L.A.


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