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On Movies: 'Tillman' will break your heart; 'Hornet's Nest' wraps up the 'Girl Who' series well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2010 - Former secretary of state/NATO commander Gen. Alexander Haig died in February, many years retired from the Army and the federal government, but the politicization of the military that Haig spearheaded and personified in the Nixon and Reagan eras endures. The effects of that politicization on one remarkable American family, and that family's battle against official dishonesty on the highest levels, are examined in a vivid, intensely personal and ultimately heartbreaking new documentary called "The Tillman Story."

As many in the audience will already know, Pat Tillman was a star defensive back in the National Football League who accepted what he saw as the challenge of 9/11 by enlisting in the Army. He survived a tour of duty in Iraq. When he returned home, the NFL, using a loophole, arranged for him to be released from further combat duty and return to football. Tillman refused the offer, saying he would honor his commitment to serve three years, even though by then he had decided that the invasion of Iraq was "illegal."

He was then sent to Afghanistan, where he was killed. His death was initially portrayed as the result of a heroic battle against the Taliban, and Tillman was eulogized as a hero by President George W. Bush, but it soon became known that the Army Ranger had been killed by so-called "friendly fire" - shot by his fellow American soldiers.

The Army tried to brush the episode aside, claiming that the details were lost in the "fog of war," but his family, including his brother, Kevin, who had also enlisted in the Army, kept pressing the Pentagon to tell them what had actually happened to Pat in that rock-jumbled canyon in Afghanistan. They fought back against a campaign by the Army to use the death of Pat Tillman to rouse patriotic support for our military campaigns in the Middle East.

Director Amir Bar-Lev ("My Kid Could Paint That") interviews Tillman's comrades and commanding officers, but it is the Tillman family that dominates the film, particularly the young soldier's mother, Mary. Time and again, over a period of years, she refuses to be intimidated and keeps pressing the questions - how did my son die? And why?

The questions are never fully answered, but in the process of seeking the truth, the director follows official lies higher and higher in the chain of command, and comes close to the very top. The result is a compelling story of how dishonest leaders try to wrap themselves in the flag as they keep telling convenient lies to the American people.

Opens Friday Oct. 29

'The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest'

The third and concluding film in the Millennium series, based on the internationally bestselling thrillers by the late Stieg Larsson, brings the whole complicated, compelling story to a satisfactory conclusion. "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" is an exciting, ingeniously plotted thriller about a few good if quirky people taking on rogue elements in the power structure of Sweden. But it won't make a lot of sense unless you have seen - or read - its predecessors, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Girl Who Played with Fire."

Fortunately, both films are available on video, and the books are out in paperback.

In the third movie, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the "girl" of the title, is in the hospital after being severely wounded in a battle with her enemies, including her abusive father. Powerful forces want her dead, or at least sent back to a mental hospital where she can expect to be locked away and treated cruelly. Her few friends, headed by investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist), are scouring city, town and cyberspace for evidence to free her from a trumped-up murder charge.

The complicated pieces of this puzzle come together in a Swedish courtroom in a skillfully manipulated denouement. It's almost worth the price of admission to watch Salander dress herself for court in high-punk style, sheathed in black leather and lycra, with a foot-high Mohawk and bristling with piercings. She's a terrific character, the main key to the popularity of the series, and it's hard to imagine that the upcoming American version of the trilogy will do any better than Noomi Rapace in the part of Salander.

"Hornet's Nest," like "Played with Fire," was directed by Daniel Alfredson. It is less overtly violent than the first two movies, but the hatred of and brutality toward women that is the underlying subject of the series is always lurking just below the surface, and at times - as when we revisit the sexual abuse of Salander by her legally appointed guardian - it explodes into view.

Opens Friday Oct. 29

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.