As friendly fire rained down on a handful of Army Rangers trapped on a desolate Afghani mountain, Corporal Pat Tillman heard one of his comrades begging God to save him. Tillman, a former NFL player who was the most famous enlisted man in the United States Army, told the solider to stop praying and stay focused. The soldier lived; Tillman was not as lucky. But it's emblematic that, even facing death, Tillman remained rooted in the grievous here-and-now rather than the great hereafter.
The Tillman Story, a new documentary about the Army's attempt to cover up the circumstances of his death and his family's search for the truth, is a riveting testimonial to the power of personal integrity. Tillman was not a religious man: At his funeral, his younger brother Richard emphatically stated that Pat did not believe in God. But he did believe in honor, commitment and collegiality -- all traits that help explain why he enlisted and then remained in the Army even after he began questioning the war in Iraq.
Amir Bar Lev, the filmmaker, brings a journalist's perspective to the story. Interspersing talking heads with footage of Pat's football career, the Tillman family, Army videos and news coverage, he teases out the mystery of Tillman's last minutes and the family's all-out campaign to discover what happened. Tillman emerges as an exemplar -- a Renaissance man who read widely, conversed easily and displayed grace and prowess on the playing field. He was kind, thoughtful and self-possessed. His main weakness seems to have been an over-fondness for the F-word.
Bar Lev uses Mary "Dannie" Tillman to frame her son's story. It's her hard-won right. Mrs. Tillman spent several years investigating the tragic events of April 22, 2004 -- reconstructing redacted Army documents and tracking down Pat's Army buddies. Her determination to discover the truth was driven, in large part, by the Army's attempts to use her son as a patriotic symbol for the war effort.
At the heart of the story, then, is one person's fight against an institution bent on twisting reality to serve its own ends. That the institution, in this case the U.S. military, can control much of the mainstream news media makes the tale all the more poignant for those who believe that journalists are compelled to tell truth to power.
But such lofty ideals have small chance of success when powerful, organized interests have the resources and influence to shape media narratives. And while the government and the military can appeal to patriotism and national security, religious organizations can conjure God -- and greenbacks, too, to ensure that their will is done. This is the chilling theme of 8: The Mormon Proposition, another new documentary that shows how the media was used to promote a political agenda.
In this case, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) were concerned enough about same-sex marriage that they decided to fight it. (The film says that same-sex marriage undermines the church's theology by endangering its conception of the afterlife.) After organizing a successful campaign in Hawaii, where the LDS purposefully allowed other less controversial groups to lead an anti-gay marriage coalition, it seized on California as the next battleground. Even before gay marriages were legalized by the state supreme court, Mormons had begun to gather like-minded groups in support of a ballot proposition that limited marriage to the union of a man and woman.
Unlike The Tillman Story, which artfully uses music, archival footage and eye-catching cutaways to underscore its points, 8: The Mormon Proposition misses no opportunity to include heavy-handed shtick. There are many shots of cash registers, stacks of money and bills changing hands. The litany of the LDS' sins -- bankrolling much of the "Yes on 8" campaign, obscuring its part in the coalition, producing misleading commercials -- is damning enough without the cheesy music, grainy footage and cartoonish spokesmen. Put simply, the Mormons spent a lot of money to stamp their religious commitments into the California state constitution. That this egregious violation of church/state separation could occur is justification enough for the movie.
Although both films expose the ability of large and powerful institutions to impose their will on society, they also reveal the news media's complicity in this process. Most people I know become journalists because they want to "do good" -- whether by informing the public, unmasking bad guys, or recounting the deeds of unsung heroes. But there's a limit to how much they can accomplish given the industry's current commitment to profit, power and entertainment. Newspaper executives don't want to take on the military or upset powerful religious constituencies; they want consumers to read the ads and buy the paper.
Filmmakers like Bar Lev and Reed Cowan, who wrote, directed and produced 8: The Mormon Proposition, are our new muckrakers. Like their early-twentieth-century antecedents, they're holding up a mirror to institutions that, in our name, are undermining our democracy. And at the same time, they're providing a model for what journalism can and should do.