Friday, August 27, 2010

Review: The Tillman Story

This powerful doc looks at the U.S. Army's exploitation of a football-pro-turned-soldier.
Pat Tillman [] had it all: square-jawed good looks, a loving wife, a multimillion-dollar contract to play for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. So when the football star enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2002 - just eight months after 9/11 - people noticed.

Pat Tillman was a walking armyrecruitment ad: a guy who renounced the pampered life of a pro football player so he could take on the Taliban.
Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. secretary of defence at the time, sent Tillman a personal letter of congratulations, thanking him for signing up. Here was a recruitment ad beyond anyone's wildest dreams: a gridiron warrior renouncing the pampered life of a pro athlete so he could take on the Taliban.

The U.S. government and military were loath to discard that storyline, even when the worst-case scenario unfolded in 2004. After he perished in Afghanistan, the Army told the family that he had died while fighting the enemy, sacrificing himself to save the lives of fellow soldiers.

It was an outright lie, designed to cover up the embarrassing circumstances surrounding the death of America's best-known enlisted man, who had actually been the victim of friendly fire. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star (for valour facing the enemy); key evidence, including his uniform, was burned; and several of his Army Ranger colleagues were ordered not to divulge the truth.

Directed by Amir Bar-Lev [], The Tillman Story is a moving study of how the football player's family has worked tirelessly to uncover the facts of the friendly fire incident, and who was responsible for the subsequent coverup. One month after Tillman's death, the army was forced to acknowledge that the original tale of sacrifice in battle wasn't accurate. They claimed to have bungled the initial investigation, but Pat's parents - lawyer Pat Sr. and teacher Dannie - suspected that the Tillman-as-heroic-martyr story was a nefarious fabrication, and not the result of bureaucratic incompetence.

They didn't appreciate the fact that their dead son was used as a propaganda tool - especially since the Hollywood-style myth-making was contrary to Tillman's self-effacing manner. Pat Sr. and Dannie felt that the best way to remember Pat would be to discover the truth - as Dannie says, "What they said happened didn't happen, and so you have to set the record straight." Clearly, this was the wrong family to mess with.

Unlike Standard Operating Procedure [] (2008), Errol Morris's equally damning indictment of the U.S. military in the George W. Bush era, The Tillman Story isn't stylistically groundbreaking.Bar-Lev relies on solid investigative journalism and taut editing to shape his narrative. At one point, Dannie Tillman describes poring over 3,000 pages of redacted text in an attempt to piece together what happened on that fateful day in Afghanistan. This might sound dry, but in Bar-Lev's hands, the sequence plays like a conspiracy thriller. Dannie's persistent research ultimately leads her family to a showdown - of sorts - in the U.S. House of Representatives with some current and former high-ranking military officials.

The Tillman Story is largely about a mother's quest for certainty under the most trying circumstances imaginable. In archival footage, we catch a few glimpses of her son. The unconventional football star was a consummate team player who stood out from the pro athlete tribe by deflecting any praise thrown his way, riding his bike to practice and not owning a cell phone.

His decision to enlist in the army, alongside his brother Kevin, is never fully explained, although one assumes that it was due in part to the seismic events of 9/11. That can't be confirmed, however, because Tillman never publicly divulged the reasons for his retirement from pro football.

Bar-Lev allows Pat to remain inscrutable; the director resists cheap hagiography, as did Pat Sr. and Dannie. Instead, he asks some fascinating questions about the role of heroism in modern-day war, showing how it can be co-opted, manipulated, even manufactured. In the process, he creates an eloquent tribute to a fallen soldier and an unforgettable portrait of a family's grief.

The Tillman Story opens in Toronto on Aug. 27.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBC News.

Muslim until proven Christian

Is Barack Obama a Muslim?


He's a Christian. Nevertheless, that question has been a background whisper to the right-wing narrative about Barack Obama even before he became a candidate for president -- Obama made his announcement almost a month after the false report that he attended an Indonesian madrassa as a child.

That whisper became more of a shout in the past week after some thoroughly depressing polling was released showing that disproportionately large percentages of the American public either believe (contrary to established fact) that the president is a Muslim, or are unsure (in spite of intense media scrutiny) of which faith he adheres. This can't be seen as anything but a huge victory for the right, which has, for the better part of three years, made sure to take every opportunity to use "Obama" and "Islam" in the same sentence. Sometimes it's more explicit, like when Franklin Graham proclaims that Obama was "born a Muslim." Other times it's slightly less explicit, like when the Washington Times' Jeffrey Kuhner -- who was editor of when it made the false Obama-madrassa claim -- callsObama a "cultural Muslim" and the Times Photoshops a star and crescent onto his face.

Either way, the end goal is the same -- to portray Obama as different, dangerous, "other."

Given that they've worked so hard at fostering this image, one would think that the release of polling showing that more and more Americans buy into their bogus storyline would be cause for celebration. That, however, is not the case, as the right is eager to disown responsibility for this bigoted line of attack and place it squarely on Obama's shoulders.

Stephen Hayes suspects that the Muslim rumor persists because of Obama's "outreach to what he calls the Muslim world." Rush Limbaugh claims Obama hasn't been "obvious" about his Christianity, while Glenn Beck faults the president for practicing "a Christianity that most Americans just don't recognize." Byron York wrote a blame-the-victim masterpiece for the Washington Examiner in which he traced responsibility for the Muslim falsehood all the way to Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father.

The logic is amusing -- the default setting for most people is to think Obama is a scary Muslim, and it's his responsibility to convince them otherwise. In practice, the argument is devious. These right-wingers give the appearance that they're rebutting the false Muslim rumor, but at the same time forward it by attacking Obama for doing things that make him seem like a Muslim. They absolve themselves of responsibility while reaping the benefits of smearing their ideological adversary.

But it's not just the president who's getting a bad shake. Implicit in this smear is that being a Muslim is an undesirable trait, something to be feared and loathed. And that has the potential to make difficult the lives of American Muslims.

One need not look any further than the ongoing, increasingly ludicrous row over the Park51 Islamic center -- currently suffering under the ignominious "Ground Zero mosque" misnomer. After weeks of Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media blithely lumping Muslims together with terrorists, Nazis, and enemies of the state, the protests against Park51 have taken on a virulently xenophobic character, with protesters holding signs with slogans like: "Islam = Hate"; "Islam = terrorist"; "Islam = Killing."

But if we're going by the right wing's rules, then that's the fault of Muslims for not sufficiently proving they're not all hateful, murdering terrorists.

Simon Maloy is a Research Fellow at Media Matters for America.

Google continues the assault on the price of a phone call

By Rob Pegoraro Washington Post

What's a phone call worth these days?

A Verizon phone booth in a Metro station suggests one answer: 50 cents.

Another comes from Verizon's cheapest landline service option, which charges 10.2 cents a call.

If you use a cellphone or subscribe to a voice-over-Internet-Protocol calling plan, the number shrinks to a vanishingly tiny fraction of your monthly bill: maybe a few pennies each time you dial out?

But if you use Google's new, free phone-calling option (, that figure drops to zero.

On Wednesday, the Web giant announced that American users of its Gmail Web service could call numbers in the United States and Canada for free from within their browsers. Calls elsewhere cost less than many traditional long-distance domestic calls: You pay 2 cents a minute to call Ireland, Korea, Argentina and many other countries. (Google's rates top out at 99 cents a minute for those calling the island nation of Nauru.)

The Skype Internet-calling service charges slightly more for international calls, but it also charges about 2 cents a minute for domestic calls.

Gmail's rates should be familiar to users of Google's free Google Voice service, a separate option that the Mountain View, Calif., company only opened to the public in June. But using Google Voice requires logging into a Web site or launching a program on your phone (if one's available for it) and, in some cases, waiting for Google to connect your call.

Calling from within Gmail, by contrast, requires nothing more than installing a small plug-in program (available for Windows XP or newer, Mac OS X 10.4 or newer and some versions of Linux) and logging into Gmail. Click the "Call phone" link to the left of your inbox, type in a number, click the big blue "Call" button and things proceed as if you had just finished spinning a Bell System phone's rotary dial.

If you have a Google Voice account, the other person will see that number in their caller ID. You can also answer their calls from within Gmail; an incoming call will generate an alert in the bottom right corner of the Gmail window, which you can click to answer.

If you don't have a Voice account, the other party will see a special number Google has set up, 760-705-8888. Calls to that yield a message advertising the new Gmail feature.

Since Wednesday, I've used Google's voice calling from the Safari and Firefox browsers on a Mac, as well as copies of Firefox running in Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux. Everything sounded fine to me, although one co-worker commented that my own voice sounded as if I were underwater.

(That may be the fault of the simple external microphone I used on my work desktop -- a giveaway from Skype's public-relations department.)

Google says more than 1 million calls were placed through Gmail in its first 24 hours. It's unclear how many of them consisted of people dialing their cellphones, recording a voicemail message to the effect of, "Hi, this is me calling through Gmail," and then hanging up.

Google won't say whether domestic calling will remain free, but it's structured this service and Google Voice to stay afloat based on the profit generated by international calling.

Unlike Gmail itself and many other Google applications, advertising doesn't factor into this -- a detail that its privacy policy ought to spell out but does not.

In other words, as spokesman Randall Sarafa wrote in an e-mail Thursday, "Google absolutely does not record or listen in on phone conversations."

Placing a call through a Web browser may not be for everybody. But the ability to do this could change how even the tech-averse make and pay for phone calls.

Think about what Gmail did for e-mail: By offering effectively unlimited storage and inviting users to hold on to their old e-mail forever-- after Microsoft and Yahoo had steadily cut back on the storage offered to users of their free Web-mail services -- Google pounded the market price for each message all the way down to $0.00.

Phone use has been edging in that direction for a while, coaxed along by steadily expanding blocks of unmetered domestic calling time on wireless plans and the growing allotments of "VoIP" services such as Skype and Vonage. Google's latest move can only accelerate that trend. Incumbent carriers will have to respond accordingly.

But don't feel too bad for the telecom firms. At least until Google or somebody else finds a way to sneak into that market, those companies seem secure in being able to charge an unhealthy premium for text messaging.

The Ann Coulter You Don't Know

The flap over Coulter’s speech to a gay Republican group shows that the right’s provocateur is a heck of a lot of more complicated than she’s made out to be.

“Wait until you hear what Ann Coulter did now” has become a cable news era cliché—up there with “fair and balanced,” “we report, you decide,” and “can I please get a word in edgewise, Mr. Carville?” So upon learning that Ann has found her way into another controversy—a sadly overused word when applied to Ms. Coulter—the natural temptation is to brace oneself. This, after all, is the woman who mused—in jest?—that perhaps America would be better off if women couldn't vote.

One of the carefully guarded secrets of Ann Coulter world is how much she is not hated and—dare one say it—even liked by many within the dreaded liberal elite.

No doubt to the surprise of Coulter haters—and "hate" is not too strong a word here—the supposed Bellatrix Lestrange of the Republican Party recently took a stand that the more rational among them might even applaud. When informed she could not participate in a political conference if she kept a commitment to speak to a group of gay Republicans, Ms. Coulter told organizers just what they could do with their conference. Noting that she speaks to all kinds of groups whose views she does not necessarily agree with—“the main thing I do is speak on college campuses, which is about the equivalent of speaking at an al Qaeda conference”—Coulter, in her own style, stood for something that conservatives are supposed to believe in: the free exchange of ideas. Few, of course, have exercised that particular privilege with more vigor than the woman who famously labeled Katie Couric “the affable Eva Braun” of the liberal movement.

Lately, in fact, Coulter has been making a habit of getting on the bad side of the right’s Dwight Schrutes, even at the risk of alienating some of her book buyers and website subscribers. She was, for example, an early and outspoken opponent of the Obama birther movement, calling its adherents a collection of “cranks.” And in response to commentator Bill Kristol’s haughty demand that Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele resign because Steele criticized the military surge in Afghanistan, Coulter turned the tables. “Bill Kristol Should Resign,” she wrote, thus fearlessly taking on one of the Grand Poobahs of today’s GOP and provoking a needed debate within the conservative movement over the dangers of supporting every military action at every time under every circumstance.

Tolerance for differing viewpoints…a willingness to stand up to the GOP’s titans…is this the Ann Coulter that liberals loathe and Republicans love? That is exactly her. But you’re not supposed to tell anyone. In fact, one of the carefully guarded secrets of Ann Coulter world is how much she is not hated and—dare one say it—even liked by many within the dreaded liberal elite. Well-credentialed members of the mainstream media privately extol her. Among her friends is the decidedly unconservative talk show host Bill Maher, on whose cable program she frequently appeared. “Unlike so many people in America, she was not afraid to get booed,” Mr. Maher once said of his pal. But at a quasi-debate with Maher, Coulter showed the limits of her affection. “Bill wants me to behave like a wife who laughs each time she hears her husband tell the same story,” she told her audience. (Predictably she did not oblige.) To the shock, awe, and dismay of many on the left, Coulter even has dated a number of liberal acolytes, including a one-time aide to Joe Biden and the former president of the New York City Council. There are even anecdotal cases of—brace yourselves—actual kindness.

I can attest to this unsettling phenomenon. Some years ago, a geeky political nerd from Michigan came to Capitol Hill with grandiose dreams and a debilitating shyness. Few among the great potentates and perennial climbers of the United States Senate had much time for the lugs at the bottom. But Ann did. Though a senior aide to a U.S. Senator, she took the time to get to know the rest of us, ask our opinions, share stories, and be a friend. Even then I knew that Coulter would not be long for the dreary rituals and bloviating self-absorption of Capitol Hill. Instead she became a media star.

More than a decade later, when I wrote a book about my experiences in Washington I asked my publisher if Ann could read it. I figured she wouldn’t remember me and expected a polite rebuff. Instead Ann got to it quickly and wrote a generous blurb. When the book received criticism from prominent Bush aides and some conservative friends waited out the deluge from a comfortable distance, Ann Coulter stood by with her support, even appearing on Fox News to lend a hand and correct the facts.

I jokingly told her that from here on out I’d punch anyone who attacked her in my presence. “You’re going to be pretty busy,” she instantly replied.

None of this is to say that Ann Coulter hasn’t deserved the animosity or opposition she has received over the years—and which she sometimes has shrewdly cultivated. She knew well what she was doing when she boldly criticized the 9/11 widows or poked fun at Senator John Edwards before that particular sport became a national pastime. And most likely she wouldn’t take back a single offending word she has ever uttered.

But there is a reason why all the latter-day Coulter imitators on cable news channels have been about as cutting edge as a J.C. Penney commercial. People—at least those who matter—usually are more complicated than their caricatures. It’s too bad that politics doesn’t allow us to see more public figures that way.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.