I’m back! I’ve been out of commission the last few weeks, because there’s a new baby in the Soup Man’s kitchen, and, well, new babies can be very demanding. But I had to take off my baby-bottle goggles to tell you about a great documentary that’s coming out this Friday, August 20.
The Tillman Story is just that: It’s the story of Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals football player who enlisted to fight in Afghanistan and who was tragically killed by fellow American soldiers. It tells a story on many different levels: the actual retelling of what happened, the story that the media told about his death, the story that the U.S. government tried to tell and the story that director Amir Bar-Lev says we tell ourselves.
I interviewed Bar-Lev for the alumni rag of our mutual alma mater, Brown. I didn’t know Bar-Lev at school, but we met on the festival circuit when his first film, Fighter, came out. It’s cool to see how he has quietly built a body of work — in addition to Fighter, there was My Kid Could Paint That and now the Tillman film — that places him snugly in the top tier of documentary filmmakers.
Although the subjects of his three films are very different — a Holocaust survivor, a child prodigy and a celebrity soldier — the running theme is one of storytelling. Bar-Lev studied semiotics in the Modern Culture & Media department at Brown, and he has an acute understanding of the ways culture filters reality. In other words, how it tells stories. The Tillman Story is gripping stuff: Bar-Lev interviews Tillman’s mother and, in an exclusive, one of his brothers. He gets to the heart of who Tillman was, and how he’s been wronged (in life and in death).
In talking with Bar-Lev, I was particularly interested in how he himself received quite a lesson in the nuances of the give-and-take of information during the making of a film. This happened when he found himself competing (my word for it) with Jon Krakauer, the writer of Into the Wild, who was working on his book about Tillman, Where Men Win Glory, at the same time. Bar-Lev praised Krakeur’s journalistic skills to me, but I have to imagine it was tough when the Tillman family gave Krakauer Tillman’s journals. Still, Bar-Lev got the family on the record and also spoke with the soldier whose life Tillman saved. I haven’t read Krakauer’s book, but I can say that Bar-Lev’s film left me fulfilled, that I learned a lot of truth about Tillman, and because of that, I felt like I was witnessing the restoration of Tillman’s honor. That’s quite a feat for a film, and Bar-Lev deserves a lot of credit for it.