This review contains mild spoilers.
Several weeks ago Some Random Guy From The Internet sent me email to recommend the film Grizzly Man. Well, you know me: I’ll do anything I’m told to do over email, which is why I am forever purchasing penny stocks, verifying my Wells Fargo bank account, and watching you and your sister on your new webcam. So I saw it.
And hey, S.R.G.F.T.I: thanks! It was great.
Of course I was predisposed to like it, because Grizzly Man is a documentary and I loves me some documentaries. (I suspect I may have mentioned this here before, which is what earned me the aforementioned email in the first place.) That said, enough sets this film apart from most documentaries to prevent my liking it a sure thing. For one, the filmmaker, Werner Herzog, inserts himself into the narrative, doing the voiceover and occasionally even offering his own opinions on the events depicted. For another, most of the movie was not filmed by Herzog, but is, instead, literally found footage. How this footage came to be taken, and why it ultimately required a finding, is the story told.
Timothy Treadwell spent over a dozen summers living in the Katmai National Park & Preserve, frolicking with the grizzlies therein. You may think I am being glib but, no, the man actually frolicked — talking to the bears in sing-songy voices, invading their personal space, and occasionally even touching them (invariably to their annoyance). One of many people interviewed in the film says that Treadwell “wanted to be a bear,” and, at times, this seems like the literal truth.
For the last five of his annual visits Treadwell brought along a video camera. Because he didn’t really do that much beyond hanging out with the bears, much of the footage is of Treadwell giving monologues about his life in the Preserve, with particular emphasis on the danger he faces.
Treadwell often referred to himself as the bears’ protector, though it’s unclear what protection he envisioned himself as offering. At any rate, Treadwell is the one who could have eventually used some protection: at the end of his thirteenth summer amongst the grizzlies, he and his his female companion were killed and eaten by one of his ursine “friends.”
Now, I know is seems like I just ruined the end of the film for you, but they reveal this fact within the first five minutes, honest. And foreknowledge of Treadwell’s fate is essential to fully appreciate the bizarre quality of his on-air soliloquies. Even while he reminds the hypothetical viewer about the dangers of grizzly fraternization, he seems naively unaware of it himself. Treadwell’s ultimate goal — both in living with the bears, and in filming his exploits — seems to be the casting of himself as the protagonist in a Jack London short story or a novel serialized in Boy’s Life. At times he seems less like a man living amongst bears as a man in the middle of a “Living Amongst Bears: The Roleplaying Game” campaign.
Herzog editorializes quite a bit in this film — something I had been warned about in advanced and thought I’d hate, but actually didn’t mind. A few times he even goes so far as to say “Here I disagree with Treadwell” and offers his own opinion in the voiceover, and I did feel that these rare instances did cross the line. But as one of my companions remarked, “all documentarians have bias — better that they state them openly than pretend they are objective,” and I agree with her sentiment.
One thing that Herzog does exceptionally well in Grizzly Man is keep the character of Treadwell (and he does seem to be a character, albeit one of Treadwell’s own making) from becoming stagnant. Several times in the film I thought, “well, I think I’ve seen all there is to see of this guy” moments before Herzog unveiled some new fact, included an interview, or spliced in a piece of footage that gave Treadwell a whole new dimension. Even as you’re walking out of the theater, you’re still not quite sure what to make of the guy.
Grizzly Man is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen; and, as I stated before, I like documentaries a lot, so that’s saying something. And just a quick postscript for people who are hesitant to see this film because of the killing. There is no video footage of Treadwell’s death, so you won’t see it. There is an audiotape (Treadwell turned his camera on just before the attack but didn’t have time to remove the lens cap), but Herzog declines to play that, either. At one point a coroner describes the audiotape, but he does so in a fairly clinical manner. There is one emotional scene in regards to the audiotape, but Treadwell’s death is treated mostly as an ironic twist to his life, and is not, in itself, the focus of the film.