THE TILLMAN STORY: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE TILLMAN STORY (Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2010)

The square jawed intensity that one of this documentary’s participants describes of its subject Pat Tillman is seen in the very first shot after the opening credits.

It’s a video close-up of Tillman for some sort of promotional football spot for his team, the Arizona Cardinals.

In it Tillman takes direction from a voice off camera and he is clearly uncomfortable yet performs the task with confidence.

As narrator Josh Brolin tells us, Tillman left a multimillion-dollar football contract to join the military in 2002. He was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. This was covered up by higher ups who wove a complex web of distortion of the real circumstances.

Tillman’s family, including his youngest brother Richard who was on the same tour of duty, weren’t satisfied with what they were being told. A wealth of documents and other soldier’s recollections painted a far different picture.

Through the media Tillman became a symbol of the Bush administration’s bogus Iraq war narrative as details of his character were trotted out for their own ends. He was a Noam Chomsky reading, all religion tolerating atheist, All American sports star, so, of course, he was an image to be manipulated into a tool of propaganda.

The man’s mother Mary “Danni” Tillman, dives into investigating her son’s death, calling every single person involved and trying to decipher 3,000 pages of redacted documents with the help of Stan Goff, an ex-military man turned activist blogger.

“The Tillman Story” is as incredibly moving as it is angering in its exploration of a massive spin operation. In its use of archival footage, photographs, and interviews there’s not a wasted moment in its masterful construction.

When evidence suggests that the tragic event was the result of not “the fog of war” but what Tillman’s mother calls “the lust of war” – Tillman’s fellow soldiers’ gun crazy thirst for combat – the film has us firmly in its grip and doesn’t let go.

Director Bar-Lev, whose previous doc MY KID COULD PAINT THAT was also a winner, shifts from development to development in a highly engaging manner. The obligatory ominous background music never intrudes in a Michael Moore manner, and the film never indulges in anything but the facts.

And the facts as presented are overwhelming.

The governmental gaps in the facts not only disrespect Tillman, his family, and the public record, they insult the entire system for which he lost his life.

THE TILLMAN STORY is by far one of the best, if not the best, documentaries of the year. As unpleasant and sickening as the story it tells often is, its power comes from the courage and strength of the family left behind, which no doubt will touch and inspire many movie goers.

That is if the masses that normally ignore modern war documentaries actually give it a chance.

More later…

New DVD Diatribes For A Dreary Rainy Day

Yep, a few NetFlix envelopes torn open and their contents digested on a cloudy drizzly May day goes somethin’ like this:

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT (Dir. Amir Bar-Lev, 2007) Is Marla Olmstead just a regular 4 year old who likes to paint or is she a artistic genius on the scale of the great masters? Bar-Lev’s documentary filmed a few years back follows the Olmsteads – a family from Binghampton, NY whose youngest daughter’s abstract canvasses cause a sensation in the art world. Her paintings are sold for thousands attracting media attention and then controversy. A 60 Minutes piece claims that Marla’s father (Mark Olmstead) actually coached the work out of her or actually produced the paintings himself. This is where the narrative arc becomes “a story about a story” as Elizabeth Cohen (the columnist who first broke the original story of Marla as child prodigy) says. Parents Mark and Laura Olmstead are outraged at the accusation that they are exploiting their child and attempt to prove that Marla is the sole author of her work by filming her with a hidden camera. The plot thickens even more as filmmaker Bar-Lev has growing doubts and voices them, at first alone to his camera in the car driving from the Olmstead home then directly to the parents in an extremely uncomfortable but still compelling scene in their living room.

The cleverly named MY KID COULD PAINT THAT is one of the best of the current crop of documentaries and one that leaves you guessing about what really went down much like CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS or the more recent THE KING OF KONG. Having been introduced to these folk through these visual essays, whether or not they are balanced portraits, we can follow up through the further internet coverage and make our own conclusions. In Marla’s unique case we are shown many of her paintings and much footage of her at work. Her father Mark does seem to have a controlling influence and her work when filmed on her own appears to be different by style and method to the previous examples. Mark Olmstead also seems overly defensive and makes some ‘digging a hole’ type comments like: “I don’t want this documentary to be about 60 Minutes although everybody wants to talk about 60 Minutes but I’m not! Because I don’t talk about it ever until you guys are around!” Still, as Bar-Lev sensitively stresses through-out the film Marla and her family seem like nice people who got caught up in the craziness of modern art marketing and manipulation. It’s hard not to have sympathy for their situation but if the attacks on the arts authorship have truth to them it’s pretty damning nonetheless. Mother Linda at a frustrated moment says “documentary gold” right before tearfully walking off camera – she says it extremely sarcastically but it may be the most truthful remark made in this movie. When Marla comes of age it will be interesting to hear what she says about her parents and painting dominated childhood – a prospect that I’m sure Bar-Lev is looking forward to.

CONSPIRACY (Dir. Adam Marcus, 2008) I’ve been working on a book about conspiracy movies for some time so I feel obligated to see every such related movie so it’s obvious why this made my NetFlix queue. A quasi-remake of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK this awful unimaginatively titled film features a chunky Val Kilmer acting as wooden as possible returning from Iraq to seek out a fellow soldier friend from the war. He travels to a town in the South West which is being re-built as a corporate-run old timey tourist trap by an evil millionaire played by the slimily charming Gary Cole. Kilmer, suffering from constant over dramatic Iraq flashbacks, finds that his friend is missing and everybody is mum on the subject and of course that Cole wants him out of town. One cowboy hatted cliché even says: “ Throw in local hottie Jennifer Esposito, a Keystone cluster of corrupt cops, the most predictable shoot-outs this side of YOUNG GUNS II and the result is craptacular.

Cole, an under-rated actor (TALLADEGA NIGHTS, OFFICE SPACE, THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE), is the only one who seems to be having fun with his hackneyed character. His smirking scene stealing makes me think that they should have handled this material satirically. Kilmer can do comedy too, as his performances in TOP SECRET, THE REAL McCOY and even in his overblown impression of Jim Morrison in THE DOORS (well, I laughed) attest so really I wish they had gone that route. Instead all we have is this predictable retread through the leftover plot devices of the before mentioned BAD DAY… mixed with the lowbrow aesthetics of the WALKING TALL series and severely sucky remake. As a lover of both good and bad conspiracy themed movies I couldn’t even make counting the clichés a fun game with this being just downright dreadful and well deserving of its Direct-To-DVD status.

I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH (Dir. Jeff Garlin, 2006)

Garlin’s debut as triple threat leading man, writer, and director is somewhat slight but like Garlin himself – it’s a lovable schlub of a movie. Best known as Larry David’s manager Jeff Green on Curb Your Enthusiasm Garlin has a long list of credits in comedy and casts lots of longtime buddies from his Second City days and sitcom background in this film. Garlin plays a guy not unlike himself – had he never left Chicago and lived with his mother (Mina Kolb – an original Second City Player). He hears about a remake of the classic Ernest Borgnine movie MARTY, a film he’s convinced he’s perfect for, and pines for an audition. He meets a quirky ice-cream parlour clerk played by comedienne Sarah Silverman and he pines for her too. Then there’s Bonnie Hunt as a “chubby chaser” school teacher (as Amy Sedaris labels her in a nice cameo) who actually may be a more sensible choice for Garlin. That’s about it for what we’ve got here plotwise but Garlin makes it a breezy affable affair at an economical 80 minutes with a nice helping of heart.

I’m glad that I watched MARTY (Dir. Sydney Lumet, 1956) for the first time not long ago. I think it’s the definitive good, not great, movie to win the Best Picture Academy Award. Garlin’s I WANT SOMEONE TO EAT CHEESE WITH references MARTY so often that it posits itself as a companion piece. It indeed would make a good double feature. If you want to make it a triple feature throw in John Candy in ONLY THE LONELY (1991) – another film about a frustrated fat man that owes something to Ernest Borgnine’s turn. I, like many, can relate to Garlin’s struggles with his weight, love-life, and crumbling career. The tone and timing with so many recognizable comedy folk including Dan Castelletta (Homer Simpson!), Tim Kazurinsky (SNL in the 80’s), and Richard Kind (Mad About You, Spin City), all hitting their marks is right on the money – and I mean the low budget money. Jeff Garlin says on the commentary that he feels he made a good, not great movie. He’s right – like the movie he’s giving props to (MARTY of course) it is good and while it would never get an Oscar I’m sure it’ll gain a lot of fans. Now I’m gonna go check out if I have any cheese…

More later…