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Director Amir Bar-Lev on How The Tillman Story Came Together

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Pat Tillman (left) and his brother Kevin from Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story - Photo Credit: Donald Lee
Pat Tillman (left) and his brother Kevin from Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story - Photo Credit: Donald Lee

The Tillman Story is a compelling new documentary from director Amir Bar-Lev that tries to unravel the tangled tale of how Pat Tillman, the pro football player who gave up a successful sports career to join the army after 9/11, died from fratricide in Afghanistan in 2004. Bar-Lev was faced with the job of integrating the multiple strands of the story into a nuanced but comprehensible and objective narrative, and then finding ways to visualize it.

The film follows the dogged efforts by his mother Dannie, who has written a book on the subject, to get to the bottom of what led to her son’s death and why it was covered up. As the Army’s best known enlistee, Tillman was initially lionized by the military and even President George Bush in a speech as a war hero who died fighting the Taliban. His funeral became a national event. Only later did the Army acknowledge Tillman died from friendly fire.

“It took us a year to edit the film,” says Bar-Lev. “We wanted it to reflect our own experience, which was to start with the myth and unravel it. You start with Pat’s death, but you also have to end with his death. It required us to create a braid of several narrative threads.”

The Tillman Story Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev
The Tillman Story Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev
The director says he borrowed from the structure of films by Quentin Tarrantino and Serge Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, “which keep coming back to a pivotal day.”

Bar-Lev didn’t get going on the project until 2007, when he attended a key Congressional hearing into Tillman’s death, where several generals and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld basically stonewalled the committee. Dannie Tillman and other members of the family also testified gave the director what would be one big element for the documentary. “Without the Tillman family, I couldn’t have done the movie,” he says. Candid interviews with Tillman’s parents, his wife and his closest buddy in the Army, who was there when Tillman died but was told to shut up, are interspersed throughout the documentary.

Finding footage to illustrate the bulk of the documentary was harder. “Luckily, I had two great archivists, Judy Aley and Kate Coe, who had worked with Spike Lee and Michael Moore.”

The two came up with B-roll footage taken by news cameraman at crucial events that their cable outfits deemed too controversial to air. Obviously no one filmed the actual scene when Tillman was killed. But there was a small amount of footage from a stringer that showed the remote mountain pass in Afghanistan where he died.

One major break came from the National Football League who were willing to turn over footage of Tillman playing for the Arizona Cardinals. Otherwise there were only a few snippets of Tillman on film during brief interviews when he enlisted. Without the NFL film, Tillman would be largely absent from the documentary. “Tbe NFL is notoriously difficult when it comes to rights, but they gave us everything, so I give them a lot of credit,” says the director.

The music by composer Philip Sheppard provided further continuity, knitting the film together.

“He really nailed it,” comments Bar-Lev. Actor Josh Brolin, who did the narration, also played a key role in securing music for the film, in particular the right to use Hawks and Doves by Neil Young, which begins and ends the documentary.

“Josh put in a call to Neil and that’s all it took,” says the director.

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