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“The Tillman Story” director Amir Bar Lev – FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: When the Academy announced the 15 feature-length documentaries eligible for the upcoming Academy Awards, Amir Bar Lev’s “The Tillman Story” found itself in good company alongside Alex Gibney’s “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,” Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” and Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for ‘Superman.’”

Earlier this week, we were able to sit down with Bar Lev and discuss his documentary, which focuses on the tragic murder of celebrated U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who infamously sacrificed an NFL career so he could serve his country overseas but was the victim of mortal friendly fire. Our exclusive interview touched on additional footage, the real Pat Tillman, and Bar Lev’s disputes with the MPAA over foul language in this film.

HollywoodNews.com: Can you tell me something that you learned about Pat Tillman that didn’t make it into the film?

Amir Bar Lev: Wow, that’s a really interesting question. That didn’t make it into the film? Well, there’s so much that didn’t make it into the film, actually. We could have made a six hour film.

Documentaries, in particular, are such a living, breathing thing, and the story continues to evolve long after you’ve released your film.

Exactly. It’s so funny that you asked me because I’m currently working on the DVD extras, and there’s really like an addendum film that can be made from the outtakes of our interviews.

As far as Pat goes, we rode a fine line with the film, and that line was that we wanted to demythologize Pat, but we didn’t want to dissect him. We didn’t want to make a film that audiences would walk away from saying, “OK, now I know exactly who Pat was.”

One of the reasons why it took us over a year to cut this film is because when you say, “Well, people have imbued his enlistments with all sort of significance that it doesn’t really deserve,” that is really their own projection, and that doesn’t come from anything he actually said. The natural inclination is for the audience to then turn around and say, “OK, then tell us why he did enlist.” But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to try and engender offense to the audience, in the kind of sense where, “Let’s give this guy back his privacy.” He never asked to have his entire life dissected. Why do we have this natural, reflective sense that we deserve to poke our flashlight into every shadowed corner of his subconscious.

You get a sense where the Pat Tillman you thought you knew was a myth, but you also don’t feel like you need to know exactly what the replacement myth is, you know? So, to your question about what’s not in the film, there’s tons of stuff that’s not in the film. We did get a bunch of information about his childhood, his friendships, the thing he did, for instance, with [Army Specialist] Brian O’Neil, that soldier he saved. He was a very popular, charismatic guy who was always aware of who was being excluded from a group. … So we have stories like that.

You mention the DVD. Will they give you carte blanche to include everything that you’d like to put on?

Honestly, I don’t know. It’s a technical question, but I think you have at least 50 minutes or more to play with on one disc. But the truth is, I want to make two discs. I have this idea for the DVD which may or may not fly. But I want to include documents so you can download them yourself and put yourself in the position that Pat’s mom was in and participate in the investigation in a way. And then as far as the footage itself, there’s some shocking stuff, man. I mean, we got excited early on about this sort of unconventional structure that the film has, which involves starting with his death and then taking a cloverleaf chronology so you come back to the death at a certain point. But consequently, we ended up really killing our babies. There were really powerful things that didn’t fit our structure that I would have liked to have included in the film that I still feel kind of obligated to include in the public record.

I’ll just give you an example. The hour after Tillman was killed, the soldiers in his platoon decided, in the words of one of our interviewees, to go get the guys who did this. And, of course, the guys who did this, you could find in a mirror. But this was a real act of almost like a “Lord of the Flies” deal. They had committed fratricide. They had all of this pent-up aggression because they knew they had killed one of the most-famous enlistee. You’ll remember in the film there’s a compound right next to where Pat was killed, and these guys decided to just raid that compound. They went in there and separated the men from the women and children and trashed it. They tore into it with their knives. They chipped away at the foundation. They destroyed the place. And they took the men out at sunrise, and put bags over their heads. It looks exactly like Abu Ghraib. And they took pictures of it! The pictures have a time stamp on them, you know? 4/23/2004. And then they got a call from back at the base and were told, “Now you have to put everything back the way you found it” So they spent the entire day after Pat Tillman died putting everything back the way they found it. That’s one little anecdote, and I have so many of those. But you don’t want to hear a story like that after Pat died in the film. You want to be heading toward the end of the movie, so we couldn’t put stuff like that in. But I have those photos, man, and I feel like the public needs to see them.

The MPAA continues to be in the news for the harsh ratings it is handing down. “The Tillman Story” was one of the first films this year to fight back against the rating it was handed. Any idea why the MPAA is reacting this way?

It may just be a case of we’re just clueing into it now. But they clearly are out of touch. They are out of touch with what we, as a society, consider obscene and what we don’t consider obscene. That’s the bottom line. I wouldn’t begin to speak about those other films [“Blue Valentine,” “The King’s Speech,” “How Do You Know”], but I can say from our perspective, it was just another case at sanitizing or attempting to sanitize Pat. They’re willing to take the Fox News, statuesque, muscle-version of Pat where he can’t speak because he’s a statue, but they’re unable to accept the way that he talked. Which was, he had a foul mouth. I think that if kids are to be told about people and told that people are American heroes, then they should be told who those people actually were. [Laughs]

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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One Comment

  • November 19, 2010 | Permalink |

    I hope Amir Bar-Lev’s DVD extras include the 2009 testimony of Gen. McChrystal at his Senate confirmation hearing. The Democratic Senate (& President Obama) continued the Army and Bush adminstration after Amir’s film ends with the August 2007 Congressional hearing.

    In his “The Fog of War” interview with Jason Guerrasio, Amir Bar-Lev, the director of “The Tillman Story,” said: “… there’s been no culpability on the second half of this tragedy, which is the higher ups trying to cover it up. … to borrow a football metaphor, they [the Tillman family] ran the ball 99 yards over four years time, they handed it off at the one-yard line to Congress and they fumbled it….”

    Shortly after Sundance, Bar-Lev emailed me that “he was pretty hard on the Democratic Congress in his film.” True, his film does portray Congressman Waxman’s Oversight Committee as ineptly failing to get answers from the top military leadership during their hearing.

    However, Bar-Lev’s film missed the ”untold story” that both the Democratic Congress and the Obama Presidency protected General Stanley McChrystal from public scrutiny of his central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death. This cover-up was a thoroughly bi-partisan affair. It wasn’t just a case of the Bush administration and the Army stonewalling the Democratic Congress. Congress didn’t just “fumble” the ball, they threw the game.
    It’s not surprising that after their initial cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death fell apart, Army officers and the Bush administration lied to protect their careers. But after they took control of both Houses of Congress in 2006, the Democrats (including Congressman Henry Waxman, Senator Carl Levin, and Senator Jim Webb) and Senator John McCain could have gone after those responsible. Or at least not promoted them twice!

    Just before the 2006 mid-term elections, Kevin Tillman published his eloquent letter, “After Pat’s Birthday”. Kevin had hoped a Democratic Congress would bring accountability back to our country. But, just as with warrantless wiretapping and torture, those responsible for the cover-up of his brother’s friendly-fire death have never been held accountable for their actions.

    For details, see “The [Untold] Tillman Story” posted at http://www.feralfirefighter.blogspot.com

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