Hero Worshiped

By Yabroff, Jennie | Newsweek, August 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

Hero Worshiped


Yabroff, Jennie, Newsweek


Byline: Jennie Yabroff

Who killed Pat Tillman? A film asks instead: who created his myth?

Watch just a few seconds of the footage the major news outlets ran nearly nonstop in the weeks following Pat Tillman's death and you'll get a crash course in Mythmaking 101. Flags wave. Slo-mo footage of the pro football player turned Army Ranger is intercut with still photographs from his life. Stirring music swells, while a somber-voiced narrator intones that Tillman was an "unflinching patriot" who gave his life for his country. It's the narrative that was propagated by George W. Bush when he said, "Pat Tillman loved the game of football. Yet he loved America even more."

Did he? The reality is, only Tillman's family knows why he gave up his football career to join the Army, and only a few of the troops present on the day he died know the exact circumstances of his death. A new documentary, The Tillman Story, questions our need to idolize Tillman, and our desire for tidy answers about why he decided to enlist in the Army and what happened the day he died. Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev scrupulously avoids the sort of speculation and psychoanalyzing that the media engaged in following Tillman's death, yet he employs some of the same techniques as the news reports he criticizes. All of which raises a question: can a film that aims to counteract propaganda avoid becoming propaganda itself?

We are used to a certain degree of artifice in works of fiction--art, Picasso said, is the lie that tells the truth--but from their earliest days documentaries have manipulated facts and images just as much as narrative films. In 1922's Nanook of the North, filmmaker Robert Flaherty staged scenes, demanded theInuit actors hunt with traditional spears instead of the guns they normally used, and even changed the name of the lead character (Allakariallak of the North just didn't have the same ring to it). In the ensuing years, documentarians began using verite techniques with the aim of presenting a more "realistic" view of their subjects. The handheld camerawork, fuzzy sound quality, and lack of narration gave verite films a patina of authenticity, but that doesn't mean they weren't every bit as manipulative as their more polished counterparts. …

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