Grizzly Man (2005)
Starring: Werner Herzog [narrator], Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Kathleen Parker
Directed by: Werner Herzog
I watched this a couple weeks ago, and meant to review it, but didn’t have the time. I was going to let it go, with other things to do and review, especially since I don’t think documentaries are a major draw here. Then, Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, went and got himself killed by a stringray, and suddenly this movie is topical.
Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog‘s examination of Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 straight summers in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, to live amongst the Kodiak Grizzlies who reside there. A self-styled protector of the bears, Treadwell would make camp amongst them, filming their actions and interacting with them (going as far as touching them), in an attempt to increase understanding of grizzly bears and protect them from the outside world.
He pursued this calling with abandon, sharing his footage and teaching school children about the bears without a fee, but in doing so, grew increasingly paranoid about the outside world’s supposed opposition to his “work” and lost whatever grip on reality he may have possessed when he began his pursuit. Perhaps as a result of this slow descent into insanity, or perhaps simply as a matter of course, on the thirteenth summer amongst the grizzlies, Treadwell and then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and devoured by one of the grizzly bears he believed himself to be protecting.
Sound familiar? However, there are some key differences between Treadwell and Irwin. The Crocodile Hunter grew up studying the animals he championed, with some professional experience as a zookeeper and environmentalist. Also, the animals Irwin died championing were actually endangered in many cases, and probably needed his help (if not in the showy manner in which he chose to help them). Treadwell, on the other hand, was a California surfer-type, a failed actor who turned to nature after overcoming drug addiction. He seemingly replaced his chemical dependence with a different form of addiction, seeing his time with the bears and foxes of the reserve as his salvation. Unfortunately, he seemed to lack a true understanding of the bears (despite his ability to live in their presence for 12 summers), and is constantly anthropomorphizing the bears as though they were teddy bears, instead of ten feet tall carnivores that could instantly kill most anything it encounters.
Moreover, Herzog makes a point of showing that these particular grizzlies weren’t in any particular danger. An interviewed expert reveals that their numbers were pretty strong, allowing for the elimination of 150 or so bears a year without hurting their numbers. Poaching wasn’t a serious concern for the area. Thus showing that the self-styled “Grizzly Man” was neither a hero, nor important. He was just plain crazy.
Still, Herzog manages some level of respect for Treadwell, if not as a saviour, then as a filmmaker. The footage Treadwell captures of the wildlife is often stunning, and generally unique, as no sane person would have ever gotten as close as he to capture these images. What’s particularly compelling about Treadwell, and this movie in general, is how he has seemingly created a mythic image of himself and is completely convinced of the justness of his cause. He is truly mad, and as the years go by, it only gets worse.
Watching Grizzly Man is like watching no other documentary I’ve ever seen. It’s like the Blair Witch of nature docs, as you see scenes with Treadwell and a bear, and wonder if that’s his eventual killer. Thankfully, Herzog stops the movie just short of being a snuff film, and doesn’t play the footage of Treadwell’s and Huguenard’s remains, or the audio of their murder (Treadwell was filming during the attack, but did not manage to get the lense cap off). The movie is chilling without it, without being exploitative.
The biggest lesson to learn from Grizzly Man, as with the death of the Crocodile Hunter, is to respect the boundaries between man and nature. We need to be considerate of man’s dominion over other species, and to protect the animals from it, even predators. However, we must also recognise that there is a boundary, one that must not be crossed lightly. In this respect, it is hard to see Treadwell’s death as tragic (save that sympathy for Huguenard), but instead it seemed to be the only end his self-imposed mythology would have allowed. This isn’t a film about tragedy. Instead, it is a fascinating look at the power of nature, the folly of man, and what happens when those two collide. It is powerful, unique, and just about the craziest thing you’ll see.