Politics At The Movies: The Tillman Story

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The Girl Who Played with Fire

(Still playing through Thursday, Sept. 23 at The Crest, 1013 K St.)

Directed by Daniel Alfredson

This is the second film of the Swedish version of adaptation of the mega-popular Swedish techno-thriller trilogy. From the reviews I’ve seen, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” is getting mediocre reviews compared to the good ones received for the first film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

This is so absurdly wrong I don’t even know where to start. This sequel is much closer to the feel to the books, and just plain better. Whoever is in charge sensibly dumped the director from the first effort, Niels Arden Oplev, and replaced him with Daniel Alfredson. The glacial pace and oppressively and dated mood music is replaced with a feel that is much more modern and fast-paced.

This is something more familiar to American audiences, a crime procedural which shows lots of respect for people who are good at jobs like computer hacking, journalism and police work (though many of these police aren’t). One thing that’s interesting is this is a thriller told from a politically liberal perspective. It’s no accident that the heroes are pretty immoral in terms of the family values sense—they like to bed-hop and lack any shred of respect for authority—but are willing to take tremendous personal risks for bigger causes, in this case, stopping sex trafficking.

This casting is still a problem. Like I said before, the craggy, lumpy Michael Nyqvist isn’t handsome enough to play ladies man journalist Mikael Blomkvist. As my girlfriend said as we were watching this, “The men in this movie just aren’t very attractive” (and no, that’s not the kind of thing she typically says for my benefit). I could probably write a whole column about how European movies feature lots of beautiful women (though not necessarily this one) and homely men, to the point where they make beer commercials look realistic. But at least his character is more competent and aggressive—more like in the books—in this film, and that helps him more credibly play the Blomkvist.  

Noomi Rapace has also settled into the role of Lisbeth Salander, the punk rocker bisexual computer hacker with Asperger’s who is the title character of all three books. She’s still too tall and buff to play a character who is supposed to be 4’11” and 90 pounds. But there is something essential she gets right, her hyper focus, how haggard she is much of the time, her longing for a deeper connection with the small number of people she actually cares about.

Instead, it left me with the feeling that a feature length (just over two-hour) film is not the right venue for bringing the series to the screen. This is a better film, sure, you in order to fit everything in, it moves too fast. Even with a running time of just over two hours, major events are skipped over. Someone will flash by with a single line, and a moment later you realize that in the book they were a semi-major character, with their own story arc.

American films are coming. But I hope at some point, someone does a faithful, three-season cable TV series. The many different characters, involved relationships and procedural minutiae are all elements of what has made successful cable series came to dominate television, at least in terms of quality, for the last several years. Think “Mad Men,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Wire,” “Dexter” etc. Especially since author Stieg Larson died before his books got popular—and obviously won’t be writing any more of them.

The Tillman Story

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

With this film, Pat Tillman has completed his journey from hero of the right to hero of the left. Which is too bad, because he hated being an icon for either side. Half a dozen years after his death from so-called friendly fire in a remote area of Afghanistan, his story is still familiar to most: the star pro-football safety for the Arizona Cardinals who walks away from millions of dollars to join the Army Rangers after 9/11.

This film follows two books about Tillman, including the excellent Jon Krakauer biography “Where Men Win Glory.” The two major parts of this story involve 1. The military’s lies and cover-ups after Tillman was killed by so-called “friendly fire” and 2. The extraordinarily rare character of Tillman and his family.

Public opinion on Tillmans’ decision split between a majority who admired him as a God-and-country patriot, and a minority who thought he was an idiot. Both were wrong. Tillman was a patriot, but he was also an atheist, a voracious reader, a fan of Noam Chomsky and deeply skeptical of the military even before he joined. It’s also pretty apparent from the brief interviews in “The Tillman Story” that he was both intelligent and sensitive. He also wasn’t overtly political himself. Those who knew him say that he loved to take either side of an argument, master it enough to win a debate, then flip the board, argue the other side and win that too.

Which is why the military’s attempts to use him as a recruiting poster went so badly wrong, even before he died. He refused to give interviews, and explicitly said he did not want a military funeral. He got into trouble with Army authorities from the beginning – who, in turn, were afraid to be too harsh with him because of his celebrity. His first combat mission was the media-circus rescue of Jessica Lynch, something even at the time he called a joke and charade. One video from Ranger training shows 19-year-old recruits wrestling and acting gung ho. Then you see Tillman in the background, off by himself, looking thoughtfully into the distance.

If there is a group to whom Tillman could rightfully be said to be a hero, its non-believers. He was like a Hemingway hero – if Hemingway had had a moral code. His life is reminiscent of that Alexis de Tocqueville quote, “If you tell a man he doesn’t live forever, he will act as if he lives for only a day.” He took absurd risks long before going to war, climbing up and jumping off of a series of high objects, doing triathlons in the football off-season, staying out all night drinking and generally approaching life like a limited resource.

Early on, “The Tillman Story” shows Pat’s funeral, where Maria Shriver got up and said that Pat was “safe now” and “in a better place.” The next person to get up was Pat’s little brother Kevin, who replied “Pat wasn’t religious. He isn’t in a better place. He’s f—ing dead.” His last act among the living, as his unit was being hit by withering fire from other Rangers, was to stop a Mormon soldier from praying, saying he didn’t want him being killed while he was “off in La-La Land.” Later, an audio tape surfaces of a high-up military officer theorizing that the family can’t deal with Pat’s death because they don’t believe in God, it sets the stage for Pat’s mom, Danny, becoming a crusade for the truth – which was that he was killed due to badly-trained unit mates, and that he essentially died in a mission whose only purpose was to save a single humvee from falling into enemy hands.

Yet despite his absence of belief, Tillman was a better standard-bearer for family values than Sarah Palin will ever be. He was incredibly close with his family (who all love to drop the F-bomb). Despite being a star athlete and, as Krakauer put it, “conspicuously handsome,” he was only ever with one woman. He met the future Marie Tillman when he was four, got together with her in high school, and stayed faithful despite attending colleges hundreds of miles apart.  

e thing this film brings that a book never could was footage of some of the brutal hits Tillman inflicted on the field. Which also left me wondering what an old Pat Tillman would have been like. A big guy by almost any other standard, he was undersized in the NFL. That, combined with the fact that he made his mark as a ferocious enforcer in the defensive backfield, you have to wonder if he would have ended up one of those befuddled ex-football players, prone to the kinds of memory loss and odd outbursts you usually associate with advanced old age.

In a strange way, this may have almost been a sadder fate. Part of the reason Muhammad Ali’s decline into rope-a-dope aided Parkinson’s disease has been so sad is that he was also a wordsmith who didn’t hold his tongue. Tillman lacked Ali’s verbal creativity, but he too was a freethinker who defied authority and spoke his mind. Just like those of us in the middle class who turn a blind eye while the economically less fortunate fight our wars, those of us who like football often feel guilty when we think about what happens to the players later on.  If Pat Tillman had stayed in the NFL instead of dying at the same age as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, he may still have become an icon. Just a very different one.  

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