Timothy Treadwell sure loved grizzly bears. So much so, in fact, that he would camp out in the Alaskan wilderness to study them up close and personal for months at a time. For 13 years he set up camp, first in a federally protected bear sanctuary, then – as the summer waned – he would move to a wilder area he called the “bear maze.” In the last five years, he had taken some 100 hours of bear footage, presumably for a documentary he planned to make. Then, in 2003, the remains of his body and that of his girlfriend were found at their campsite in the “bear maze.” They’d both been killed and eaten by a grizzly.
Now, famed German filmmaker Werner Herzog has made “Grizzly Man,” a documentary that combines Treadwell’s own footage with interviews with his friends and family, as well as critics of his methods. In this way, Herzog says he hopes to capture deeper questions about human existence and what might drive someone like Treadwell to shun human civilization. The results are by turns fascinating, horrifying, and maddening.
First of all, Treadwell’s footage is amazing. He shoots film not twenty feet away from where two eight-foot bears are fighting, and takes enormous risks. The results are striking, as these are shots the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
But there’s a reason for this. Herzog interviews bear biologists and local natives and all of them are of the same opinion: Treadwell was in way over his head. The consensus seems to be that he was well-meaning but naïve, with some going so far as to say he got what he had coming. Others are of the opinion he had a death wish, hoping to be killed by a grizzly in order to confer legitimacy on his work or merely because he wanted attention.
Treadwell’s background sheds little life on his situation. He apparently had a decent upbringing until college where he developed a problem with drugs and drinking. He moved to California, changed his name, and claimed to be from Australia. Losing the audition for the role of Woody in “Cheers” to Woody Harrelson apparently sent him into a downward spiral.
Personally, I think Herzog gives the guy more credit for depth than he deserves. Treadwell was fond of claiming kinship with animals, but sinks into a petulant rage when one of the foxes near his campsite steals his favorite hat. He obviously has no formal education in zoology or biology (though this is glossed over), which is demonstrated all too well by his habit of approaching these huge wild animals and giving them names like “Mr. Chocolate” and “Sgt. Brown.” He refused to respect the boundaries between man and bear the Inuit have been aware of for millennia and – worst of all in the eyes of some – he habituated the bears to human contact. His obsession with masking his receding hairline in all the shots only reinforces our distrust of his motives.
Some of Treadwell’s behavior is almost enough to make one wonder if this whole thing is a hoax; it’s difficult to believe someone could be so deliberately obtuse about the realities of interacting with dangerous bears. Herzog’s later attempts to confer depth upon Treadwell fall apart with some of the most recent footage, which show Treadwell ranting about the powers aligning against him to stop his work. “Grizzly Man” is an interesting look at the life of a deeply flawed man, even if it isn’t totally successful in getting the audience to come over to Treadwell’s side.
Finally, mention has to be made of the score, composed by songwriter Richard Thompson. Thompson effortlessly captures the mood of the lonely surroundings, contributing greatly to the effectiveness of the film.