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Originally published September 2, 2010 at 3:02 PM | Page modified September 2, 2010 at 5:51 PM

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Movie review

'The Tillman Story': an impressive look at the man and family behind the tragedy

"The Tillman Story" is Amir Bar-Lev's powerful documentary about Pat Tillman, the National Football League safety killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan in 2004.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

'The Tillman Story,' with Pat Tillman (in archival footage), Dannie Tillman, Patrick Tillman Sr., Kevin Tillman. Directed by Amir Bar-Levin, from a screenplay by Bar-Levin, Joe Bini and Mark Monroe. 94 minutes. Rated R for language. Varsity.

In Amir Bar-Lev's startling and moving documentary, "The Tillman Story," one of the Army Rangers who served under the late Cpl. Pat Tillman describes an incident in which he failed to complete an essential task Tillman had asked him to do.

Tillman didn't yell or make a scene, says the soldier, still an admirer of the Arizona Cardinals safety who famously left the National Football League in 2002 for two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the officer did make clear he was "disappointed," a rebuke that pained the private and underscored the personal element in Tillman's charismatic, natural leadership.

One was loath to let Tillman down, yet, according to this gloves-off investigation into his death by "friendly fire" in 2004, that's exactly what the U.S. military did to him and his family during a feverish cover-up of the facts.

Well-paced, methodical and seemingly thorough, "The Tillman Story" uses archival footage and fresh interviews to relate Tillman's decision (and that of his brother Kevin) to join the Rangers after the Sept. 11 attacks.

While Tillman, a very private man, was tight-lipped about his motivations, the film does give insight into his stirring and thoughtful reasons for signing on: the feeling that he owed a debt to history, and his desire to give something back for a good life.

Sent to Iraq, he was quickly convinced that that war was misguided. It was during his second tour, fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, he was mistakenly killed by members of his own unit.

Bar-Lev reveals how the Army threatened witnesses to the tragedy, claiming Tillman had been killed in action while saving others. Tillman was awarded a posthumous Silver Star, but what the Department of Defense didn't count on was the resoluteness of his family in uncovering the truth, painstakingly pulling facts together from hundreds of redacted documents.

"The Tillman Story" is compelling as a portrait of this group effort, led by Tillman's mother, Dannie, though it is never far from the simmering anger of his father.

Patrick Sr., a no-nonsense attorney, does not mince words when accusing the Army chain-of-command (leading to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) of obfuscating the reality of Tillman's death and turning that death into a myth promoting the war's image at home.

The outcome of the Tillmans' press for an honest inquiry has mixed results. But what we learn about this family — their roots in ideals larger than themselves, the freethinking ways they raised their kids — is an encouraging tale of American values you can cling to in an age of war sold by public relations.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

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