And yet Herzog tries to stretch the significance of Treadwell’s life too far, to make his story a kind of real-life version of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. His narration is frequently more intrusive than enlightening, yammering in our ears about universal truths when he should be allowing the footage to speak for itself. There’s no doubt that Treadwell’s story has the dark existential edge of a trip into madness, but too often Herzog allows his own voice drowns out our thoughts.
Neither can Herzog resist injecting his trademark flair for drama into the proceedings. While interviewing Treadwell’s business partner and former girlfriend, Herzog presents himself listening to the recording of Treadwell’s last moments on earth (the camera was on during the attack, but the lens cap was never removed). We never hear the recording, but we see Herzog’s reaction to it, and see him urge the partner to destroy the tape. While this may have been a genuine exchange, it smacks of something done for effect.
His egotism aside, there are few filmmakers that could match Herzog’s ability to extract the most compelling story from the hundreds of hours of footage. However maddening his influence on the film may be, it is also inseparable from its brilliance. He has always had a natural genius for epic drama, for man’s struggle with the savagery of nature and his own demons. He undoubtedly saw many of his own quixotic tendencies taken to extremes in Treadwell, and sought to wrestle with them in the film. In this sense Grizzly Man is simply another shade of his masterworks Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo.
Whatever faults the movie may have, it is undoubtedly a work of singular beauty and power. It reaches far beyond the mundane boundaries of most wildlife documentaries and delves deep into the most frightening landscape of all – the human mind. If anything Tim Treadwell has proved that you don’t need big budgets and special effects to make an utterly engrossing film – just a camera and a passion so incandescent it lives on long after you are gone.
- Alistair Fairweather
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