by Anna Thorngate

The Tillman Story
Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, U.S., The Weinstein Company

The use of the word narrative to designate fictional films as opposed to documentary ones is problematic. Narrative will show up in footage taken by an unmanned surveillance camera or a satellite, not to mention when there are humans deciding what’s in the frame and for how long, and what ends up on the cutting-room floor. And the documentary films of Amir Bar-Lev are doubly occupied by narrative; as divergent as his subjects have been, his theme is always in some sense the stories that people create in order to civilize the wilderness of their own experience, the stories they impose on the lives of others, and—especially—the repercussions when those stories come into conflict with each other, as they inevitably do.

The central figure of Bar-Lev’s excellent first film, 2000’s Fighter, is Jan Wiener, a 78-year-old Czech expatriate living in the United States, who has an extraordinary story, a narrative he’s based his life and his idea of himself on. Early in 1940, as a young Jewish man, he left Prague for Yugoslavia, then escaped Yugoslavia underneath a train to Italy, only to be discovered there and put in a POW camp, from which he also escaped. Eventually, he joined the RAF and returned to Czechoslovakia to fight Hitler. After the war, he was caught between the shifting tectonic plates of history; when the Communist Party took power in his home country, he was imprisoned as a result of having lived in the West. Fighter follows Wiener on a late-nineties trip back to Europe to retrace the route of his heroic journey. His old friend Arnost Lustig, a well-known writer and academic, goes along, as he has been wanting for years to do something with Wiener’s story. Deep disagreements between the two men over their diverging versions of that narrative, and some longstanding hard feelings about who came down on what side ideologically in the bad old days, are kicked up by the production and, at the same time, give it its narrative structure.

Bar-Lev and his camera are even further implicated in his next feature, the somewhat controversial My Kid Could Paint That, from 2007. This narrative revolves around four-year-old Marla Olmstead and her parents; Marla becomes a hit human interest story and an art star after her paintings are shown in a gallery in the town where her family lives, and are then written about, first in the local paper and then in the New York Times. Bar-Lev chronicles Marla’s growing fame and its effects on her family, as well as his own doubts about the veracity of her father’s claims about her painting and his motives as a filmmaker for being there. What starts out as a narrative about what we think about when we think about art by its end has become something much uneasier, a rumination on the damage the narratives of celebrity can do.

The Tillman Story, Bar-Lev’s latest picture, wrestles with similar concerns, but the stories it superimposes and investigates are on a much larger scale, with much graver consequences for the lives that get caught up in them. It is a departure for its director in the proportion of it that is assembled from outside footage, as many of the events it covers took place before its production, and much of the new footage is talking-head-type interviews (not that his first two features eschew outside materials; Fighter, in particular, makes beautiful, sometimes abstract use of archival photographs and films, for example in matched dissolves between locations as they looked when Jan and Arnost were young and as they looked when the film was being shot). He adapts deftly, though, without sacrificing any immediacy.

The events in question are those leading up to the death of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who quit the NFL to join the Army Rangers in 2002. Given the amount of fame he already possessed, he was savvy enough to go into his enlistment steeled to resist being made into a media cartoon of patriotism, refusing to tell interviewers anything about his reasons for joining up and being very clear about his wishes in the event of his death: no military funeral, no pomp and circumstance.

When he was killed, the military immediately cast him in a cartoonish hero narrative, and the way the mainstream media swallowed and regurgitated that story is appalling, and a major preoccupation of The Tillman Story. His family’s attempt to wrest his memory back from those trying to appropriate it led to their discovering a cover-up that went all the way to the White House and was ultimately the subject of a congressional hearing. That hearing contains one of the film’s most memorable and movie-perfect moments, an articulate and emotional speech from Tillman’s mother, Dannie, about the disservice done to those who fight wars and those in whose name they are fought by lying about what really happens in them. Of course, this not being a Hollywood “narrative” film, the beautiful speech is for naught: none of the generals can manage to remember when or if they got the memo about obfuscating the real cause of Tillman’s death. As one of the senators charged with getting to the bottom of the matter says ingratiatingly to the generals, “You were busy.”

The story about war that the government and the press seem to want us to swallow is one about simple sacrifice for the greater good, with never a corpse or a complex moral question in sight. But there’s a sneaky opposite narrative that can be just as tempting for a certain kind of viewer to slot Pat Tillman into: He said, “This war is so fucking illegal”! He was an atheist, even in the foxhole minutes before his death! He loved Chomsky! The reminder that human experience is never so easily summed up and human beings never so tidily sorted is perhaps the most resonant message in The Tillman Story.