I love the concept of documentary films, but I am generally not a real big fan. Call me a cynic, call me a pessimist, call me a party pooper, or whatever (believe me you wouldn’t be the first), but my first inclination is always to try to determine the documentarian’s agenda.
And then I spend the rest of the film wondering what information is not being shared or not being given full and fair attention. But Grizzly Man, narrated and directed by Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Incident at Loch Ness), is that one lovely and jarring exception.
Grizzly Man follows amateur naturalist Timothy Treadwell through his own video taped recordings of his many summers following a group of Grizzly Bears in the Alaskan wilderness. It is a combination of clips from Grizzly Man’s video archives and interviews with those that knew him or had reason to be familiar with him. A failed actor and former addict, Timothy spent 13 summers documenting his efforts to protect the wild bears in the Alaskan game preserve. At the end of his thirteenth summer he and his companion, Amie Huguenard, were killed and devoured by one of the grizzlies he so ferverently wished to protect.
The single greatest strength about Grizzly Man is the unflinching honesty and even handed direction of Werner Herzog. Herzog lays out both sides of Timothy Treadwell and any time he feels the need to add his opinion he very clearly calls it out as his opinion and keeps it separate from the opinions of the rest of those interviewed on camera – the Medical Examiner, the former girlfriend, the wilderness pilot, the Parks’ Spokeperson, the parents, etc. He lets those interviewed share their thoughts without imposing his preconceptions upon them. He just lets them speak and at times struggle in their own silence.
Having said that, let me lay out for you what I took away from this film and my thoughts on Timothy Treadwell and the tragedy of his death and the heartbreak of that of his innocent girlfriend, Amie Huguenard.
To me, Grizzly Man is more about an idealist in search of an ideal than it is about a man dying for his hard earned convictions in an untimely congruence of circumstances. It is about a lost and hurt soul searching for meaning to an increasingly meaningless life and finding something that gave him the ability to say that he mattered in the world when in the end he really didn’t change anything. The bears that he protected from poachers were already on protected land. In over a thousand hours of video footage he only came across other humans a handful of times and the one time this is shown what we see are not poachers but a small group of hobbyists out taking pictures of the wildlife not unlike himself, and in that segment he showed himself to be not a little bit paranoid and self-important.
He had a huge store of anger that, in footage in the movie he unleashes, shows him to be slightly out of touch with the reality of the world and nature in particular. In other footage he is seen weeping over the bond between himself and these bears that, being wild, would ultimately end up killing him and eating him. All in all, the greatest impression that comes across is that of an overgrown child lost in a world that he believes should make sense to him but regardless of all that he can do just never does.
He shows himself to be a lonely man in search of love and acceptance, but not neccessarily from others, at a very deep level he is in search of his own approval and his own affection, trying desperately to show himself that he is someone that makes a difference in the world, forgetting, as we all do from time to time, that the world, that time, that life is inexorable, that it moves on without us and sometimes, seemingly, in spite of us.
Herzog probably sums it up best in one of the few moments during the film in which he shares his own opinion:
“And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”