The Tillman Story is Amir Bar-Lev's third feature film. His directorial debut, Fighter, was released theatrically in the fall of 2001, aired on IFC, and was named one of the top documentaries of the year by Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and other major publications. It won six international awards and was called "brilliant" by The New Yorker, "enthralling" by the New York Times, and "one of the best documentaries of this year or any other" by Rolling Stone.
Bar-Lev's second film, My Kid Could Paint That, was released internationally by Sony Pictures Classics in 2007, and broadcasted on Starz, A&E, and BBC. New York Newsday called it "a mysterious, gripping metadocumentary . . . that reflects upon the thorny, unpredictable process of capturing a real-life story on film at the same time it's trying to figure out what the story is," and film critics Ebert and Roeper, called it "one of the best documentaries of this or any other year."
Nine days after Hurricane Katrina, Bar-Lev began filming a young married couple, both crack dealers, with a heroic story of survival during the storm and an uncertain future. The resulting film, Trouble with the Water, was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award and received the Grand Jury Prize at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, the Grand Jury Award at Full Frame, a Special Jury Mention at Silverdocs, the IFP Gotham Award for Best Documentary, and was nominated for the PGA Documentary prize and the NAACP Image Awards Best Documentary.
Bar-Lev has taught documentary at NYU, produced and executive produced shows for the Sundance Channel, VH1, MTV, Spike!, and The Weather Channel, as well as directed numerous award-winning short films. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and infant daughter, who was born during the final weeks of editing The Tillman Story.
The following Q&A is reprinted courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
How did the concept for the film evolve?
The story that initially attracted us — that of a football player who gave up his career to join the military and was tragically killed — turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The scope of the film began widening when we began to understand what his mother, Dannie Tillman, went through with the government after Pat's death. It widened further when we spoke with his widow Marie and others in his family about their feelings that it hadn't just been the government and military that had lied and mythologized Pat. On this topic, we were helped along by insights from a bunch of books, among them Frank Rich's Greatest Story Ever Sold, Barbara Ehrenreich's Blood Rites, Joan Didion's Fixed Ideas, Chris Hedges' War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and a great essay by Chris Hayes called "The Great War on Terror." Stan Goff, of course, was invaluable, as was Dannie Tillman's Boots on the Ground by Dusk.
So, going into the edit we had these three strands: Pat's biography, Dannie Tillman's quest for the truth, and ideas about the public's worshipful appropriation of Pat that Marie and his brother Richard speak about so eloquently. The challenge in editing was finding a structure that could support all three strands, and it ended up involving a narrative that moves forward in time while also looping backward, and catching up with one another by the end. The advantage of this chronology is you can revisit the same events several times from different people's perspectives or while focusing on different themes, as we do with the memorial service. (We were lucky in that case that, by sheer happenstance, the ESPN camera dedicated to crowd shots kept landing on two of our principals, Russell Baer and Philip Kensinger, during this most pivotal moment in both of their lives.) We pushed the biography section far back and placed the myth of Pat Tillman at the front. Our own experience learning about Pat Tillman felt like peeling away layers of an onion, and we wanted the structure of the film to reflect this.
This narrative structure also allowed us to put Pat's death and the congressional hearings about it toward the end of the film, which was essential because there's not much more you can do after either of those devastating scenes. I wanted the film to reflect the Tillmans' disappointment in the congressional hearings — the sense that they had moved the ball 99 yards down the field, only to have Congress fumble it on the one-yard line. But I also felt the film needed a sense of possibility at the end, a sense that this story's final chapter hasn't been written, and we found that with Stan Goff's soliloquy over the Tillman statue footage. The directive I gave my editors for the feel of the end was that classic Hollywood device where it looks as though someone gets away with a crime, but the final shot is, say, the bank robber leaving his wallet at the scene of the crime. That's how I see the final statue scene: as a signpost for us to someday change the Tillman story in a way that Congress could not and did not.
What were your biggest challenges in developing the project?
The toughest thing about telling this story was trying to explain how Pat was killed — even his mother is left with more questions than answers, and she's spent almost six years trying to get to the bottom of what happened that day. The military's investigation into the actions of the shooters was a sham, and these men aren't speaking to anyone. It was a challenge for our film because an audience, of course, wants answers. To this day there are few. My hope is that at the very least, we've cast serious doubt on the notion that Pat was killed in a kind of tragic "fog of war"-type accident. This is a widespread misconception that has been deliberately cultivated by the military. But the facts don't support it. If there was an ambush at all, it was a harassing ambush of two or three guys from a great distance who ran away well before Pat was killed. And he wasn't caught in the crossfire during the confusion of combat, from 200 to 300 meters as the military reported. He was killed from approximately 40 meters away — by men who fired at him for so long that Pat had time to throw a smoke grenade at them to signal he was a friendly. They themselves had time to relocate and get out of their vehicle, perhaps even to reload. Maybe it was these soldiers' desire to fire their weapons, their desire to be able to say "I've been in combat" that made them act grossly, irrationally, negligent. But that is by no stretch a satisfactory explanation, and if audiences walk away wondering how such a thing could have happened, they're in good company. It remains a mystery to anyone who really looks into it.
How did your feelings about Pat Tillman evolve while making this?
Pat's widow, Marie, once said something to us that stuck in my head: "Putting people up on a pedestal lets the rest of us off the hook." For all the talk about sacrifice and collective duty that was kicking around after 9/11, very few of us actually did anything about it. I personally think we needed, psychologically, for a Pat Tillman to act as a kind of proxy for the rest of us. And by making his character out of reach, by making him superhuman, we could tell ourselves, "I couldn't do that, I couldn't put my personal goals aside for the country — I'm not Pat Tillman." The truth is that the things Pat Tillman did that were heroic are things we can all aspire to. Maybe we can't all do dizzying cliff dives and be professional football players, but we can try to live more passionately, to test ourselves, to test our own beliefs. We can look out for the little guy, the way Pat did for Bryan O'Neil. We can be less inhibited, as he was. We began with a lot of admiration for Pat, but the more we stripped away the patina of mythology that had accrued around him, the more we liked him.
What are you hoping people take away after seeing the film?
Tim O'Brien writes that "a true war story is never moral." I hope that whatever conclusions anyone takes from this film, they'll also prod and question those same conclusions. I admire the way Pat Tillman tried to see things from opposing sides, reading, for instance, the Book of Mormon although he was an atheist. I've tried to fashion the film to provoke this kind of thinking when possible; I want the audience to simultaneously feel that General Kensinger was culpable in the cover-up and to feel sorry for him, as well. I want them to like Russell Baer and also wonder if they would have done things differently if they had been in his position. I don't want the film to be perceived as either pro-military or anti-war, but something more ambiguous, something closer to the sentiment Neil Young reflects in the end credit song: "Hawks and Doves are circling in the rain." There are no simple answers in this story. It's human nature to seek the "clear cut good guys and bad guys" as Stan Goff puts it, but the life and death of Pat Tillman challenges us to see the world differently.