“The truth of war is not always easy. The truth is always more heroic than the hype.”

Soon after Kevin Tillman testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about his brother Pat’s death in Afghanistan, Jessica Lynch, the Army private whose story of capture and rescue was inflated by the Pentagon and spread by a gullible media, said this in her own testimony. It is, without being directly quoted in the film, the central theme of The Tillman Story, an infuriating and heartbreaking documentary about the cost of propaganda on a nation’s integrity and, more importantly, on those who see the lie.

Pat Tillman became the subject of much media attention when he quit a professional football career to join the Army in 2002. He would not say why he enlisted; he felt — and was right to believe — he was entitled to at least that much privacy. After his death, a taped interview arose, part of a project by the National Football League in which they recorded players commenting about their feelings on September 12, 2001. In the interview, Pat said his family had a history of membership in the armed services, and he didn’t feel he was doing enough.

There, the media assumed — and they were wrong to jump to such a conclusion — was the sole reason for his shift from a multi-million dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to the Army Rangers. He was a patriot, taking up arms after September 11, 2001, politicians and news outlets said. They did not question the nine months in between. They did not take into account that it was filmed the day after the tragedy. Who did not feel they weren’t doing enough then?

Pat’s life was in full swing. He had been playing professional football for four years. He had just married his high school sweetheart, Marie, the only girl he had ever dated. Marie talks about how she was part of Pat and Kevin’s discussion, before even planning a wedding, to join the Army. They would not tell anyone else in the family until later, but there is something in line with the kind of person the film reveals Pat to have been that he would not keep such information from Marie. They married and show no hints of apprehension about Pat’s future plans in the footage from the reception. They are just two people in love on the happiest day of their lives.

This is the portrait of Pat that director Amir Bar-Lev shows. A man of simple ways, who rode a bike to football practice (parking it next to all the expensive cars in the lot), was always bluntly honest in interviews (even going so far as to breaking the unspoken rule and telling fans they shouldn’t come to games until the team proves they’re worth watching), and looks embarrassed on camera whenever someone pays him a compliment, but not — as too many were more than happy to presume — simple.

He read the Bible, the Qur’an, and, as a young, awe-struck kid in his unit noticed when he first realized this wasn’t some big, dumb oaf of a football star, the Book of Mormon. Certainly, September 11th had something to do with his decision, but during his first tour in Iraq, watching bombs drop on Baghdad from camp, he noted, “This war is so… illegal.”

He, like his brothers, liked to curse. When asked if she raised her sons not to swear, Tillman matriarch Mary can only say, “I thought I did.” Pictures of Pat, Kevin, and youngest brother Rich as children appear on screen. They were adventurous tykes, but their father Pat Tillman, Sr., never wanted to hear when they would do something dangerous.

So the film goes, observing Pat’s life in photos and videos. We see him celebrate sacks on the field, dance with Marie at their wedding, and participate in Army training. We know he is dead; we might even know how he died — the result of friendly fire. Even if we don’t know the truth, if we know about Pat, we probably know about the lie. His unit was ambushed, the Army first said, and he died fighting valiantly against the enemy. President George W. Bush talked about Pat’s heroism the night of his death but was suspicious in keeping out the well-publicized details. Marie received a visit from the Army to inform her of her husband’s death and to try to convince her to allow his remains to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in spite of Pat’s written, adamant wish that he not be. Even with this wish to privacy, the Army, politicians, and the media managed to make the Tillman family’s grief a matter of public record.

There was, undoubtedly, a cover-up about the circumstances of Pat’s death initially, and Bar-Lev is meticulous in proving it. Mary would go through redacted documents, counting out the blank spaces in censored names and places to figure out who and where is being referenced. She was and still is dedicated to getting the full truth about who knew what and when they knew it (the film does not theorize out loud, as some have, that Pat’s death was murder, but facts are facts — some details are too damning to ignore). There is cruelty against her fight, including one Army investigator mocking the family on the radio, and that says more about the people launching the attacks than about her.

The question of whether there was a cover-up to the cover-up is still out there. At the hearing, people don’t recall details, aren’t entirely sure of dates, might have said one thing minutes ago but didn’t mean it the way it was said. The arrogance on display is astounding. There’s no pressure from the committee, and we have to wonder: What oversight?

The Tillman Story could so easily have been a polemic against institutions or an administration, but it is not so. This is a life and death — misunderstood and manipulated by so many — in some small way, finally given due process.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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