Film Review – Grizzly Man
For thirteen summers, Timothy Treadwell lived in the Alaskan wilderness near and amongst the wild bears of the area. He interacted with them, talked with them, even went so far as to go up to and touch them. During this time, he recorded over one hundred hours of his self-proclaimed “expeditions” on video camera. He became famous, even making an appearance on the David Letterman show. Unfortunately, in October of 2003, the worst possible event occurred, Treadwell was attacked and killed by the very bears he swore to protect, along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. It is the story of Treadwell’s love for these animals that is the basis for acclaimed director Werner Herzog’s documentary, Grizzly Man (2005).
This is an incredible film about one man’s obsession not only with bears, but also with nature itself. In a way, only Werner Herzog could put together a film like this. Herzog has made a career of making movies that explore the human spirit, and examines the very essence of human nature. His films focus on individuals who dare to dream big, and are fascinated by what it is that drives these people to do the things they do. In Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), a man is driven by a manic obsession to find El Dorado. Fitzcarraldo (1982) features a protagonist who wants to build an opera house in the jungle so badly that he would be willing to pull a 350 ton steamship over a mountain to do it, and in Encounters at the End of the World (2007), he looks at a group of scientists who risk their lives in Antarctica based on a desire for scientific research. Given this, you can see why Herzog would be interested in Treadwell’s story, the two are very much one and the same.
The fascinating thing about this documentary is that the majority of the film was not shot by Herzog, but by Treadwell himself. Much of the footage features Treadwell talking directly in to the camera, detailing his daily life amongst these animals, perhaps in an attempt to use it for a television series. There is a type of haunting creepiness to the footage, because we know that what we are viewing is exactly what Treadwell is seeing, it is as if we are literally standing in his shoes. Treadwell documents the bears up close, so close in fact that he can touch their noses with his hands while filming. He gives them names, personifies them, and treats them as if they were human. It’s incredible that Treadwell would be able to do such things around these animals, which makes it even more tragic to know what laid ahead in his near future. There is even a moment where Herzog, while narrating, ponders whether a bear that was being filmed may in fact have been the very one that would eventually kill Treadwell and his girlfriend.
Although he was not a filmmaker, Treadwell approached his shooting as if he were a diligent and detailed director. He would do up to fifteen takes, starting over time and again to make sure he expressed his feelings exactly as he wanted it. Over and over, he would stop, start, and re do. Eventually, because of the fact that he spent much of the time in the wilderness alone, the camera would become somewhat of a confessional booth for his very soul. He confesses about being very much alone during his youth, about his battle with alcohol, and his trouble with finding a soul mate. During an extended, unbroken portion of the film, Treadwell goes on a long, almost stream of conscious talk about his desire to be loved by a woman, and how he would make a good partner for her. This is slightly different from reality, where it is known that he would bring different girlfriends along with him during his expeditions, Amie being one of them. Treadwell uses the camera to also lay out his anger and frustration over the supposed lack of support the government has shown toward the bears. He would throw out expletives and ill will toward the government in regard to its lack of protection for the bears from poachers and other dangers, and claim himself to be the only saving grace the bears have.
So the main question is: why did Treadwell do it in the first place? Why would he put himself in such danger, in a position where death can come at any instant? There are harrowing moments in the film where many of the bears become hostile towards him, and amazingly, Treadwell was able to maneuver the situation out of that zone, without ever needing a weapon. There are many people that are interviewed in the film that feel that Treadwell was slightly manic, that he was doing more harm than good being a foreign presence to these animals, and that what had happened was only the result of the inevitable. Maybe only Treadwell and Huguenard will ever know the true answer to their actions. Perhaps he loved these bears, and nature itself, so much that he literally wanted to become one of them. In the film, Herzog interviews a local bear biologist who explains that when one interacts and survives their time with these animals, they tend to want to feel that exhilaration again. They start to inhabit many of their traits, even desiring to be one of them. Treadwell clearly exhibits this, to the point of becoming joyous after examining a pile of a bear’s warm feces, excited to be see something that was once a part of the animal he so loved.
Clearly, the white elephant in the room involves the circumstances in which Treadwell and Huguenard were killed. It is explained that the camera was rolling at the time that the event happened, but the cap was still on, removing any visuals and leaving only the audio. In an incredibly moving and powerful moment in the movie, Herzog himself listens to the audio using earphones, provided to him by Jewel Palovak, a close friend of Treadwell’s. Although we do not hear what is happening, we can only imagine the horror of what these two people were going through. Thankfully, and mercifully, Herzog does not allow the audio to be heard at all during the film, and even goes to advise Palovak to destroy the tape. It is never mentioned, but hopefully Palovak took his advice, for as long as that tape exists, people will more focused on that moment rather than the extraordinary thirteen summers Treadwell experienced before it.
Treadwell explains very early in the film that he would be willing to die for these animals, to risk his life to do the things and be around that which gave him so much joy. Although Herzog clearly shows his disagreement with Treadwell’s idealism of these animals, the film never looks down upon him, but rather paints a portrait of a fascinating man using his very own words. There are many things to admire about Treadwell, particularly his courage and free spirit, but stepping back he was also a man who died by the hands of the wild itself, tragically bringing his girlfriend along with him. Grizzly Man is a documentary that shows the very essence of human nature pushed to the limit, where love and obsession can propel a person beyond the boarders of reason.
Final Grade: A+