8/20/10 interview with American filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev, by WNYC's Leonard Lopate, about Amir Bar-Lev's latest film on the death of Pat Tillman.
Leonard Lopate: When NFL star Pat Tillman decided to forego his lucrative football career in 2002 to join the military, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a memo that the Pentagon should "keep an eye on him." So no one should be surprised that when Tillman was killed several years later in Afghanistan, the military turned his biography into a propaganda tool. Pat Tillman's life and the controversy surrounding his death are the subjects of the new film called "The Tillman Story," which [one critic] described as "a clear-sighted, emotionally steady documentary that chronicles the Tillman family's mounting rage at the military's misappropriation of the story." We're joined now by Amir Bar-Lev, the film's director. I'm very pleased that brings him to our show.
Amir Bar-Lev: Thanks for having me!
Lopate: What was the official military account of what happened to Pat Tillman in the days following his death in Afghanistan?
ABL: They said he single-handedly saved the life of his platoon by throwing himself into the line of devastating enemy fire. They reported that he was charging up a hill and went down in a blaze of Taliban gunfire while yelling, "Let's take it to the enemy!" Which just, coincidentally happened to be one of the talking points of the Bush administration at that time, in terms of the war on terror.
Lopate: And how soon after did the story change?
ABL: Well, you know that's -- I'm really glad you asked me that because one thing that people don't understand about this story. Five weeks after that, the government realized they were in trouble. 600 of Pat's batallion mates were going to be rotating back to the states and telling their friends and family the truth. So now they had two problems on their hands. One, they had to explain why they had tried to disseminate this John Wayne story. And two, they had to change to backpedal. So they said, Everything we told you five weeks ago is still true! He's still a hero! He died exactly the way we said... There was a terrible ambush... But we just finished and internal investigation and we found that he was killed by an errant US bullet.... So they created a kind of "fog of war" scenario. A lot of people think the family finally got the government to admit there was friendly fire. Actually the opposite is the case. The family didn't get started on their investigation until that friendly fire announcement.
Lopate: They started doing all sorts of other things. Stanley McChrystal sent out a memo advising people how to answer questions about what had happened.
ABL: I think people don't understand...
Lopate: He should have been fired for that!
ABL: Oh, absolutely! Well, you know, now he's going to get a job at Yale. I think alumni and students at Yale should be taking a look at .... You know, I don't think people understand what Stanley McChrystal got away with. He basically made an excuse that is so preposterous that it's worse than "the dog ate my homework"! The government wrote up that Silver Star. Now, you know the Silver Star is the nation's third highest honor. It's reserved for people who die in valorous circumstances in combat with the enemy. It's never been given to anybody for friendly fire. They wrote a Silver Star that said, "He ran into the line of devastating enemy fire." And then the next sentence is, "He was cut down." But they wanted to be able to say, "We never said the enemy cut him down!" It's like if I said, "I got caught in a rainstorm on the way to the studio and now I'm soaking wet, " and then I said to you, "What made you think the rain got me wet?" And [McChrystal] got away with lying that way.
Lopate: This was also treated as a big story by the press around the time he died. His death was widely publicized. There was also a debate about whether it was appropriate for the media to show pictures of flag-draped coffins carrying dead soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet they were doing very much that in the case of Pat Tillman.
ABL: One of the things I tell people about this film... I'd love to say we'd done all this gumshoe work. But there's some stunning footage from the news in the film. We didn't get handed that footage by some Deep Throat in a garage in a paper bad. I got that stuff from the mainstream press -- that for some reason they chose not to show it. It was part of their raw tape. For instance, you may know that Pat was involved in the Jessica Lynch operation, another fabricated propaganda ploy.
Lopate: Should that have alerted the press to the fact that they might be a bit suspicious about the story around Pat Tillman's death?
ABL: You know, the film in part addresses this inclination on the press's part to hand us these cookie-cutter stories. Like "Jessica Lynch, the female Rambo." They give us stuff that reminds us of our movie characters and we gobble it up.
Lopate: Let's get back to Jessica Lynch. What did he do in that incident?
ABL: Well, Pat's platoon was on the periphery of the operation. And he could tell, by just watching what was going on, that it was a stunt. He said to one of his best friends, "This war's so f-ing illegal and if I die they're going to do the same thing to me." So it was an enormously prescient insight.
Lopate: He is a rather complicated character to begin with. He privately expressed opposition to the war in Iraq and then he enlisted. And then, when he had an opportunity to come home after he'd served his tour of duty in Iraq, he decided instead to stay and serve out the full three years.
ABL: He's an enormously complex guy and we found that the more time we worked on this film the more we liked him. The more heroic he got. It's hard to sum up Pat Tillman in this kind of a forum, but I would encourage your listeners who think they know this story and Pat, they should spend 90 minutes with him and his family in this film.
Lopate: Do you think the family became so suspicious because the story the military came up with sounded like something out of a John Wayne script?
ABL: That's precisely why they did get suspicious. That's exactly what happened. It sounded too heroic and it sounded too much like a movie. We talked about Jessica Lynch for minute. If you see the film, you'll see that we excerpt footage from the Jessica Lynch rescue operation where you clearly hear the camera crew... You see the thing for what it is. The camera crew is saying things that are absolutely shocking. "Get the flag in the shot!" And they're telling her to smile for the camera and things like that. Not one news outlet showed that footage, even though they had it, because it didn't fit in with the female Rambo image they want to give.
Lopate: So even our objective news media [laughter] are complicit?
ABL: Absolutely complicit. If people think this is a story that looks backwards and points the finger only at the Bush administration, they're going to be disappointed. Because this is a story that is topical. It has to do with our culture. It has to do with our press, as you say. And it has to do with people who were given big jobs under the Obama administration.
Lopate: Well, it's also interesting that the press will take one position and then, when the story comes out, suddenly they're on it and they have to find out everything. Did they do that will Tillman or were they satisfied with each explanation as it changed?
ABL: The press did a terrible job on Tillman. Actually, Anderson Cooper apologized for it last week to Pat's father on his show. That was, I think, a very admirable thing. And I'm waiting to see whether Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and some of the other people who had no shortage of words to say about Pat back when he was a John Wayne character -- I'm waiting to see whether they'll follow suit.
Lopate: The military provided the family with over 3,000 pages of redacted documents relating to Pat's death. I'm assuming they didn't expect Pat's mother, Danny, to actually read it all. But she did.
ABL: She's an amazing woman. They "misunderestimated" her, as our president once said. They handed over these documents heavily redacted. In fact, there's not one name in those documents. 3,500 -- it's a huge crate. I've seen it. And it's quite amazing. This woman who lives in a little cottage in the Santa Cruz mountains was a teacher at the time. In her off hours and oftentimes spending nights on end without sleep, she painstakingly un-redacted those documents and found out shocking revelations that also haven't been reported. But they're in our movie.
...ABL: I just have to grovel a minute here to your listeners. These films -- they seem like they're going to make a big splash because of the reviews -- we're very gratified at the reviews we've gotten today. But they really do come and go if you don't go see them in the theater. If you wait to see it on Netflix, it makes it hard to make these kinds of movies. So we're really hoping people support the film in the opening weekend and the opening week. A lot of times I get asked when we've done Q&A's and stuff and people say, "Did the government try and stop you or are you worried about the government?" And what I say is that the government doesn't put bullets in the mailbox of documentary filmmakers. What they count on is that people are going to see this in dribs and drabs and on Netflix. They'll be outraged and they'll write on the Netflix community board where it doesn't matter. But this is an unfinished story. Nobody has ever paid a price for what was done to Pat Tillman and we're hoping for a popular groundswell to write the final chapter.
Lopate: The media aren't the only disappointing actors in this. There were several formal investigations into his death, including Congressional hearings chaired by Henry Waxman. You show a lot of footage from that. They just wimped out! The generals came in and said, "Well, I never saw the memos. I never really saw any..." Donald Rumsfeld came in and said "I didn't see the memo." And then, after Henry Waxman thanks them, they left. And they all patted each other on the back and gave each other big smiles.
ABL: Again, another event that was covered by the mainstream press but for some reason they didn't show any of that. Your listeners are not going to believe what these guys got away with. It truly was "a dog ate my homework." In the movies, when you get the smoking gun, you bring in into the back of the courtroom and the cameras are rolling and the bad guy's there and you nail him. Well, the cameras are rolling, the bad guys were right there, and the Tillman's burst into the back of the Congressional hearing with the smoking gun -- a memo leaked anonymously that Stanley McChrystal had written. That memo proved that there was a coverup at the highest levels. Well, everybody who was a recipient of that memo who was sitting right there said, "You know, I didn't get that memo. It arrived late. There was a problem in my office.... " All of these generals said -- more than 82 times -- that they didn't remember. And it worked!
Lopate: You mentioned that Pat Tillman said he recognized he might be used as a propaganda tool. Is that why he didn't want a military funeral?
ABL: Yes. That's right.
Lopate: But didn't the military show up at his widow's house and pressure her?
ABL: Yeah! What was very surprising about that is we have footage of those guys pressuring her. It just so happens that the day after Pat died not only did the military begin mythologizing Pat but the press camped out on Pat's widow's lawn as well. It was a circus. The press filmed the military going to her door. It's very incongruous. You have the reportage. In the film we show how our press reported what they're watching and they said, "Today three men showed up to tell Marie they care!" But hear from her that no, they're not showing up to say they care, they're showing up to override the family's wishes for privacy.
Lopate: At one point in the story, the army investigator looking into his death attacked the family in a radio interview for their religious beliefs! He said they had trouble letting go of Pat because they're atheists!
ABL: Yes, he said they can't deal with it "because they think Pat is worm dirt." Meaning he's not in heaven. You have to realize who was supposed to be conducting the investigation on behalf of the family! That's the most shocking part of it. The government's investigation was led by a guy who said, "When are these guys going to get off my back? When will they get over it? They don't believe in god so I have no respect for them."
Lopate: The film has an "R" rating. Is that just because you didn't bleep out all of the things that soldiers say?
ABL: Well, yeah. Somebody made the joke it should be labeled "Rated 'R' for brief profanity uttered while consumed with grief and being shot at." It was very disappointing for us to get that "R" rating. It means that the film can't be shown in high schools and things like that -- the very place where they send the ROTC and try and get kids interested in the military. This is a film about a family that are quite irrascible and quite independent-minded and they use the f-bomb a lot.
Lopate: Richard -- one of Pat's brothers -- used it completely throughout his eulogy at Pat's funeral. You spoke a bit to Pat's brother, Kevin, who served. But you speak a lot with Bryan O'Neal, one of the men who was with him when he was killed. Was he still in the military when you interviewed him?
ABL: He still is to this day. In fact we saw him just last week. He did a Q&A with us in Los Angeles . He's a very interesting guy. He's the guy whose life Pat saved. Pat, in a way, gave his life for this kid. He was not well-liked in the platoon. Pat was a charismatic guy with a kind of larger than life personality and he always -- not just this time but in other times -- he looked out for the little guy. So he kind of took this guy, Bryan O'Neal, under his wings. When they were being shot at -- for a minute to two minutes they were being shot at -- this kid, who was a Mormon, began praying. And Pat said, "Quit praying! You need to have your head in the game right here!" And with those words he got the kid to stop praying and open his eyes. This guy credits Pat with saving his life with that act.
Lopate: Do we know why the shooting even occurred? Hadn't the enemy already passed by?
ABL: That's another great misperception about this story. The government has been very, very successful with this idea out there that it was a "fog of war." That these soldiers were confused, they were scared, there were enemies all around. I wager that if you grab five people in the street and ask them how Pat died, they'd describe it somewhat like that. That's because the PR machine at the Army has been successful. In fact, if there was even an ambush is debatable. It was long over. It was only one or two guys who kind of shot a couple of shots off and ran. There was a minute to two minutes. You're on radio! That's an ungodly amount of time! And it was from forty meters away. So there are a lot of questions out there about how this could happened.
Lopate: Do we know who did shoot Pat Tillman?
ABL: We do. Yes.
Lopate: Has there been any disciplinary action taken?
ABL: No. It was, but it was kind of a slap on the wrist. The government didn't want really to open a bona fide investigation or court martial proceeding. I'm told by people in the military that it was the same punishment they would get if they forgot to clean their weapons.
Lopate: I'm assuming that there were any number of filmmakers who were interested in telling this story. What did you do to get the Tillman family to trust you and give you so much access?
ABL: We promised not to engage in the mythologizing that had happened until this point. It was very, very interesting working with this family. They are such an interesting and admirable bunch of people. They felt they had lost Pat twice. Once to death and the second to this adulation that had turned him into a cartoon character. So it was very refreshing. They corrected us time and time again to bring Pat down to earth and make him into a human being again. When we came around to understanding that's what they were interested in doing, they wanted to work with us.
Lopate: He is the kind of guy who lends himself to mythologizing. He was a great football player. He has the kind of face that looks like a cartoonist would want to appropriate if he was doing a modern version of "GI Joe." That square jaw is extraordinary! Is mythologizing still occurring?
ABL: Yes. Again, I think it's too easy to chalk up the mythologizing to the military or to the government. It worked because we, as a culture, want to believe that there are people like that. but it was at the expense of who he actually was. In fact, the family says that his greatest attributes were his intellectual curiosity and his doubts. He had doubts and he had regrets about some things that happened.