Soon after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, pro football star Pat Tillman surrendered his multimillion-dollar NFL contract, left behind his wife, Marie, and joined the United States Army Rangers, where he completed multiple combat tours.
On April 22, 2004, while serving in the mountains of Afghanistan, Tillman was shot dead in what the U.S. government initially said was a result of enemy fire from a hostile ambush near the border with Pakistan. But it ultimately emerged that Tillman was, in fact, shot by his fellow soldiers, and details surrounding the motives and circumstances behind his death remain a source of great controversy.
In his new documentary, “The Tillman Story,” filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev explores these controversies and the roles numerous high-powered political and military figures played in falsely reporting how Tillman died and turning his killing into what his mother, Dannie Tillman, called a “recruiting” tool for the U.S Army.
One of the high-powered figures highlighted in the film for his alleged deception is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of his military duties in Afghanistan on Wednesday.
Reacting to McChrystal's forced resignation, Bar-Lev said he was shocked that McChrystal had made the remarks critical of the Obama administration that led to his resignation.
“I am quite frankly surprised," Bar-Lev told Pop Tarts. "In the Tillman case, he was much more strategic than he seems to have been in this Rolling Stone interview.”
Prior to President George W. Bush addressing Tillman’s death at a White House dinner, McChrystal, who reportedly knew that it was fratricide but chose to omit such details from his subsequent paperwork, sent an urgent memo to Bush’s speechwriters, warning them that "unknowing statements by our country's leaders ... might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public."
Tillman's father told the New York Daily News on Wednesday that "I do believe [McChrystal] participated in a falsified homicide investigation."
McChrystal did not share his side of the story in the film, despite the filmmakers' request, Bar-Lev said.
Bar-Lev has not spoken to the Tillman family since McChrystal resigned.
"The Tillman Story," which will see limited release in late August, was narrated by actor Josh Brolin, who told Pop Tarts he was “shocked” by what he learned while working on the project.
“I remember hearing in the documentary that someone [Gen. Kensinger] was saying that the family doesn’t have God in their lives and they are having a tough time getting over the death of their son because they don’t have anything to rely on,” Brolin said. “That was a guy that knew that they were lying to the family. So to say that to someone publicly was just so disrespectful to every person fighting for the country and fighting for the freedom in the country, that is the most evil thing you could do."
The documentary alludes to the fact that the government put the all blame on Kensinger after he had retired from the military, after which he could not be criminally charged, and “conveniently” no further investigation could then be ordered. While the family doesn’t believe Kensinger is blameless, they do believe he was merely a pawn to protect then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The film also shows a letter Rumsfeld allegedly sent to military officials after Tillman enlisted, telling them that he was “a special man” and that they needed to “keep an eye on him.”
A fellow Ranger, who was at Tillman’s side when he died, indirectly raises the question that the former NFL star may very well have been murdered. Despite Tillman’s constant screams and, what turned out to be his last words, “I’m Pat f***ing Tillman, why are you shooting at me?” the bullets continued to gain momentum.
Tillman’s longtime friend Russell Baer, who was with him when he killed and accompanied his body back home, hopes the documentary brings some sort of closure in giving the American public a sense of what really happened to Tillman.
“If you’ve spent a lot of time in the service, they tell you to never lie. They hold you high with integrity and the truth and always sticking up for what you believe in and having each other’s backs, and when it came down to it they completely lied,” Baer said. “They completely held everyone out to dry, including Pat.”
Bar-Lev says the story does not end with his movie.
“This is an unsolved mystery; nobody has ever really paid a price for what was done to the Tillmans,” he said. “No one has taken accountability or made an admission for a deliberate attempt to conceal the truth. This story is not over yet.”