Grizzly Man

2007-01-16 17:36

Timothy Treadwell was a self-taught grizzly bear expert and conservationist who chose to live thirteen summers of his life on Alaska’s remote Kodiak archipelago, studying and protecting the animals he loved. During the last five of those years he was lent a video camera with which he recorded some extraordinary footage, both of the savage beauty surrounding him, and of his own peculiar outlook on life. He was planning to make his own film from the hundreds of hours of footage, but during his thirteenth summer he and his girlfriend, Anne Huguenard, were killed and eaten by one of the bears. Using Treadwell’s own footage, along with interviews with people who knew him, veteran director Werner Herzog pieces together a portrait of a man on the very edge of humanity.


Like all great films, Grizzly Man is many things – a beautiful piece of wildlife filmmaking, a thrilling real-life adventure story, a tragic tale of unrequited love, and a disturbing journey into the human soul. In the hands of acclaimed director Werner Herzog, whose influence is as much a blessing as it is a curse, Treadwell’s footage and his life unfold with the kind of a riveting drama that no fiction can match.

The core of the film’s brilliance lies in Treadwell’s own footage. Though he was undoubtedly an amateur, he had a natural flair for filmmaking, and captured many breathtaking passages of natural splendour and savagery. One scene in particular stands out – a vicious battle between rival male bears, set against the backdrop of Alaska’s snow-capped peaks. It has a majesty and a power that any wildlife filmmaker would be proud to call their own.

But it is in Treadwell’s footage of himself, his own testimonials and rants, that Herzog has chosen to anchor the film. Choosing to supply his own narration, Herzog muses over what drove this extraordinary man to do the things he did. Was he mad? A kind of environmental zealot? A foolish egotist? Or just a recovered drug addict and drifter, desperate to find some meaning in his life?

As you watch Treadwell’s diatribes against humanity and see him face off challenges from fully-grown bears mere metres away, you can’t help but think he was just a little crazy. Both his actions and his words speak of a man who had stepped outside of what most human beings acknowledge as reality. To him the bears and foxes around him were brothers and sisters, creatures that felt and returned the fountain of love he showered upon them. With interviews and narration Herzog seems to be making the point: there are lines that should never be crossed, both mental and physical, and for Treadwell those lines had ceased to exist.

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
A fascinating, beautiful and disturbing documentary about a rogue environmentalist who was eaten by the bears he swore to protect.

Brandon 2007/01/11 3:08 AM
'' A magnificent story of mild sadness.'' The movie made me cry or so. What he did was great, and I made a T.T.N.A. and Timothy Treadwell.
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