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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - When Amir Bar-Lev first looked into the story of U.S. football star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, he was intrigued that the apparent steely-jawed war hero was an intellectually curious man who harbored doubts about the U.S. war effort.
"Then I realized I was doing the same thing to Pat Tillman that everybody had done to Pat Tillman, which is to try to appropriate him and shear off those sides of his personality that didn't fit my own world view," Bar-Lev said in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival.
The attempt to take ownership of Tillman and the circumstances of his 2004 death in Afghanistan lies at the heart of "The Tillman Story", Bar-Lev's documentary that debuted this weekend at Sundance.
Tillman, who gave up a multimillion-dollar National Football League contract to enlist in the U.S. military in the wake of the September 11 attacks, became an instant symbol of American patriotic self-sacrifice after his death.
First reported as dying to protect his comrades under heavy Taliban fire, the military soon revised its account to say Tillman had been killed by friendly fire during the chaos of combat.
The film, which has garnered strong early reviews, tells how his family became frustrated with the conflicting accounts, began unearthing disturbing details of Tillman's final minutes and concluded the military's tale of his death was twisted solely to create a war hero.
Bar-Lev uses extensive interview with Tillman's family and fellow soldiers to tie together events.
Tillman's family -- led by his mother Dannie -- studied more than 3,000 pages of redacted documents, filling in gaps and eventually raising suspicions that the final firefight strayed far from the military's official account.
Chilling excerpts from the documents include the response of one of the soldiers who fired on Tillman. When asked by investigators why he continued firing when it was clear there was no threat, he responded "I wanted to stay in the firefight."
Ultimately, the exact details of Tillman's death were never determined.
"In order to get to the bottom of it, you have to widen the scope of your inquiry to what it is for some men to be in combat, and what some men get out of combat," said Bar-Lev.
Tillman's family efforts prompted a congressional probe, but it failed to assign blame in the cover-up.
Bar-Lev pairs the David-versus-Goliath story of the family's investigation with a look at Tillman himself, quickly unraveling the caricature of an unflinching patriot that was initially embraced by the media.
Instead, Tillman is shown as an intellectually curious man who eschewed the spotlight.
"I think people are attracted to somebody who embodies opposites ... What Pat Tillman does, as I read it, Pat Tillman challenges us to see the world in shades of gray," said Bar-Lev, who also directed the 2007 Sundance breakout documentary hit "My Kid Could Paint That".
He puts forward the notion that Tillman, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, may indeed deserve to be called a hero, but for the way he lived his life, rather than how he died.
"He had a passion for living that I think a lot of people aspire to, he had a self-confidence and a humility that I think a lot of people aspire to," said Bar-Lev.
"It's funny that a lot of the same people who have lionized him, haven't really seen that the act of lionizing kind of misses the point of Pat Tillman."
The film does not yet have a wide release date.
Editing by Philip Barbara