Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Disgracing an American Hero, Chasing a Childhood Icon

A Pair of Movie Reviews

The Tillman Story
a documentary directed by Amir Bar-Lev

Although it may seem like a small thing, I think it is rather significant that The Tillman Story--an excellent new documentary by Amir Bar-Lev--is not titled The Pat Tillman Story. For while the film provides substantial biography and background about Pat's brave, selfless and ultimately tragic decision to leave a lucrative football career to enlist in the U.S. Army, the movie is just as much about the Tillman family--including Pat's mother, father, brothers and wife.

The word "story" is also quite connotative, as although several fellow soldiers and, in turn, Army leadership on up, almost instantly knew that Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004 was caused by friendly fire, his family was initially told that he was killed during an enemy ambush, in which his heroic actions saved many of his fellow troops. All of this turned out to be a lie, and the deception only seemed to grow after the fratricide was revealed five weeks after Pat's death.

Employing a firm but low-key approach--rather than a Michael Moore-ish caustic incredulity--Bar-Lev depicts the determination of Pat's mom, Mary "Dannie" Tillman and her ex-husband, Pat Sr., to learn the truth of what actually happened, who knew what when and how high up the chain of command the cover-up went. I'll let you learn the details for yourself and make your own judgments, but for me, the depth of the duplicity is harrowing and a disgrace to Pat Tillman's heroic legacy.

Interestingly and admirably, as part of the point the documentary makes is that Pat didn't want to be seen as a symbol nor have his reasons for enlisting revealed, the film does not serve to over glorify him. I don't believe anybody in the film, including soldiers whose lives he helped saved, ever directly refers to him as a hero; more importantly to them, he was a son, husband, brother and comrade. This all the more heightens the shame of the military and Bush administration in using Tillman as a political football while stonewalling his family's attempt to have the truth revealed.

No matter where one stands politically or feels about the United States' foreign policy decisions over the past decade, The Tillman Story is one you should hear. And see, if you're over 18. For no real good reason that I could tell, except some use of profanity, this movie is rated "R." Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips correctly takes the MPAA (the movie ratings board) to task in this article, in which Bar-Lev is quoted as saying, "This sends a message that [Tillman's story] is somehow not appropriate for young people, who by the way are subject to ROTC visits in their high schools, but can't see the film about Pat Tillman."

(For those who have seen the film, this video of Q&A with the filmmakers, hosted by Michael Moore, might be of some interest.)

Dear Mr. Fidrych
a fictional feature film by Mike Cramer

Somewhat akin to Evel Knievel--who I recently wrote about--Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was a phenomenon that aligned perfectly with my childhood. But whereas a substantial amount of hucksterism propelled Knievel's rise to fame and his popularity with kids, Fidrych was a much more organic sensation when, as a gawky 21-year-old rookie with the Detroit Tigers, he went 19-9, drew huge crowds at home & on the road, started the All-Star Game and enchanted the nation--including my 7-year-old self--with his quirky antics (talking to the baseball, manicuring the pitcher's mound), great nickname (inspired by his resemblance to Sesame Street's Big Bird) and surprising success.

Although his career was quickly decimated by injuries and I never gave him too much thought over the years, I was acutely saddened last year when Fidrych died in a freak accident while fixing a truck at his Massachusetts farm. So when I noticed that the Siskel Film Center was having a single showing of a film called Dear Mr. Fidrych, I made a point of going to see it.

I'm glad I did and commend first-time feature filmmaker Mike Cramer--now a Chicago lawyer who grew up in Detroit during the '70s--for seeing through an interesting idea and putting together a respectable movie on a shoestring budget. It is not a documentary about Fidrych, but a fictional, semi-autobiographical story about a Detroit kid who comes to idolize "The Bird" while struggling in Little League, and then when facing challenges of adulthood, takes a road trip with his son on which they seek out Fidrych at his farm.

I don't want to be too harsh on Cramer, but while his movie is laudable, it is far from phenomenal. Although I paid the full $10 Siskel Center admission to see it, I could easily overlook it being the most amateurish film I've ever seen in a theater--complete with poor lighting and almost inaudible sound at parts--if the material was truly first-rate. But except for the 20 minutes at the end in which a 50+ Fidrych is as laid-back, cool, not bitter and quirky as any child of the '70s could have hoped, the movie is only fair.

The dialogue isn't terrible, certainly not compared to much Hollywood drek, but is more perfunctory than revelatory (and Cramer, who was at the screening, shared that the scenes with Fidrych were pre-planned but unscripted). Cramer himself stars in the film, along with his two sons, wife and other friends & family members, and while they bring an engaging realism, a small role played by longtime Chicago sportscaster Mark Giangreco is not only the most fun, it clearly illustrates the professional finesse brought by someone used to being on camera.

The father-son bonding that consumes the second half of the film is sweet if not exactly novel, and while the childhood part of the movie is needed to set up the Fidrych pilgrammage that comes later, far too much time is spent on unexceptional Wonder Years-type stuff, including at least a half-hour of play-by-play of numerous Little League games (besides Giangreco, Chicago sportswriter & radio host Mike Mulligan makes a cameo).

In sum, I'm glad Cramer thought to make--and Fidrych agreed to be in--this film before Mark's tragic death at age 54. The scenes with "The Bird" interacting with Cramer (as Marty Jones) and his son are worth the price of admission alone, augmented by wonderfully nostalgic clips of his pitching performances. None seems to exist, but I would love to see a full-fledged documentary on Fidrych. For while this ultra-indie attempt to merge a coming-of-age story, midlife crisis and ode to a childhood icon is admirable, it just isn't a complete-game victory (of which Mr. Fidrych had 18 in 1976).

(For more on Fidrych: Stats at Baseball-Reference; Wikipedia article; excellent piece upon his death by SI.com's Joe Posnanski; a YouTube video of the end of his most famous televised game.)

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