If Timothy Treadwell hadn’t appeared on Letterman, if he hadn’t gained a measure of notoriety for his reckless conservationism before he was eaten by one of the Alaskan bears he dedicated his life to protecting, we might be tempted to believe Werner Herzog invented him.
Grizzly Man, the eccentric German filmmaker’s documentary about Treadwell’s strange life and tragic death, is just that perfect. Treadwell is an ideal antihero for Herzog, who delights in telling the stories of men'both fictional and real'engaged in losing battles against insurmountable obstacles ranging from merciless nature to their own nutty minds. Herzog didn’t actually know Treadwell personally, but he has fashioned a sublime document on his life’s work largely using video footage left behind by the man himself, who fancied himself a Crocodile Hunter for the Great White North.
Treadwell died in October 2003 along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. He had spent most of the previous 13 summers camping in an Alaskan national park, making films'and attempting to make friends'with the bears. In fact, he was a strange candidate to become the grizzlies’ biggest groupie: He grew up on Long Island, dropped out of college and repeatedly failed as an actor in Hollywood before becoming a drug addict, drunk and petty criminal. He eventually became enamored with grizzlies, embarking on a yearly summer trek to camp in the most dangerous parts of their habitat, watching over them until they retreated to their winter dens.
Herzog gradually allows us to discover that Treadwell isn’t quite right. His floppy Prince Valiant hair and ever-present sunglasses would suggest to a psychiatrist that he’s hiding something; he talks in the weird, artificial singsong of a children’s show host to the bears and foxes who cross his path. And nobody has been so ready to die since Biggie Smalls: Treadwell wears the constant threat of his grisly grizzly death like a badge of honor, and he repeatedly vows to die for his animals if necessary, right up until a few hours before his death. “He was acting like he was working with people in bear costumes out there,” a local says. “He got what he deserved.
Treadwell’s camera was running with the lens cap on when he and Amie were attacked; Herzog listens to the audio on camera in Grizzly Man, then urges Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend to destroy it. It’s hard not to trust Herzog to make that decision, since every other aspect of the picture is so meticulously drawn. He inserts himself throughout the film with a persistent narration in his gloriously stentorian voice, and he expertly allows Treadwell’s delusions to reveal themselves through the man’s own footage. The best stuff filmed by Herzog is a graphic reconstruction of their deaths by coroner Franc G. Fallico, who talks straight into the camera without blinking.
Some of the film’s aerial shots over majestic mountain vistas recall Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog’s masterpiece about a madman convinced he could conquer nature. Treadwell demands rain from God, then celebrates when it’s delivered. A fox follows him around for a decade. When Treadwell goes on a bizarre, profane rant against the Park Service employees whose rules he repeatedly violated in his quest, the symmetry is delicious and fascinating. “I’m the only protection for these animals out here,” he proclaims, with no reasoning to back it up. Herzog sardonically replies: “I have seen this madness on a film set before.
Grizzly Man doesn’t transform Treadwell into a hero, as the film’s few detractors have preposterously claimed. Herzog knows Treadwell was a reckless trespasser who sentimentalized serious matters, not a martyr or even an effective naturalist, but the filmmaker in him can’t help being impressed by Treadwell’s monomaniacal dedication. One of Herzog’s final lines is the coolest thing ever said in a nature documentary: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” Grizzly Man has complex views on nature and destiny, but its honesty might be Herzog’s greatest achievement yet.