Pat Tillman was a hero. He just wasn't the hero that the U.S. military made him out to be. Tillman, the Cardinals defensive back who famously traded in his pads for fatigues in 2002, was far more complex, as is the story of his 2004 death (SI, Sept. 11, 2006). The Tillman Story, a two-year project from producer John Battsek (One Day in September) and director Amir Bar-Lev (Fighter) opening in theaters on Aug. 20, is a searing look at the murky events surrounding Tillman's killing by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan, a death initially attributed to Taliban fighters who ambushed his unit. The movie documents how Tillman's sacrifice was twisted into a relentless Army p.r. campaign, and the subsequent cover-up when his family, particularly his mother, Mary (Dannie) Tillman, refused to be satisfied with what the military was telling them.
The film's use of archival news footage, Army press conferences and candid interviews presents a damning study. "It's an atrocity that they would take a young man with honorable intentions who served his country and lie about how he died to promote a war," Dannie says near the end. "That is immoral." By then we have seen her spend three years dissecting more than 3,000 pages of heavily redacted Army documents only to discover more troubling questions surrounding her son's death and the decision-making that led to the cover-up. Meanwhile, except for a retired general who was scapegoated, no top brass was ever held responsible. Among those in the chain of command was the recently retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who awarded her son a posthumous Silver Star even while knowing that the honor may not have been justified. "That the military is still practicing this duplicitous behavior is disturbing," Dannie told SI. By film's end you certainly know where Pat got his courage.