Timothy Treadwell, environmental activist and antihero of the documentary Grizzly Man, appointed himself the "guardian" of Alaska's grizzly bears. Filming himself in close proximity to one of the massive mammals, he explains the risks involved, repeating, "They can kill, they can bite, they can decapitate."
But Treadwell also romanticized the wild animals to a fatal degree. Spending months in the Alaskan wilderness, he gave the bears cutesy nicknames like "The Grinch" and "Mr. Chocolate," and believed that his macho imitations of ursine behavior earned him the animals' respect. At least up until the day in 2003 when Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by one of the bears he was supposedly "protecting."
In Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog views Treadwell's life through a fascinated but skeptical gaze. Drawing on 100 hours of Treadwell's own footage, as well as interviews, Herzog conducts a compelling autopsy on Treadwell's ideals and contradictions.
At first we're enchanted with Treadwell's close-up footage of bears hunting for food, sparring for mates or even nosing up to the camera lens. But the more we learn about Treadwell and Huguenard's fate, the more uncomfortable such shots make us. Grizzly Man retraces the discovery of the bodies, and witnesses and a medical examiner provide some verbal descriptions as gory as any crime-scene photo. ("We hauled away four garbage bags of people out of that bear.") We squirm during a scene at a salmon river when Treadwell turns his back to a grizzly that, we're told, may have been his killer.
Herzog looks past Treadwell's public image as a high-profile animal-rights advocate and discovers a recovering alcoholic and failed actor most famous for appearing on "Love Connection." Bears became a kind of substitute addiction for Treadwell, who cultivates a misleading mystique of himself as a lone crusader in the wild. In fact, Huguenard accompanied him on his 2003 expedition, though he never mentions her in his footage, which he dramatically narrates a la "The Crocodile Hunter."
At first amusingly eccentric -- with his Prince Valiant haircut and high-pitched voice, he resembles an Andy Dick character -- Treadwell seems increasingly divorced from reality as Grizzly Man progresses. He launches into furious monologues against the National Parks Department (which insists that people maintain a 100-yard distance from bears) and even rants for God to send rain during a drought.
Herzog knows something about how the wilderness can magnify human obsessions. His art-house classics Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo showed jungles driving men to the brink of insanity, and the film productions proved nearly as intense. He openly admires Treadwell's methodical filming practices and eye for lyrical nature scenes, but he has an opposite outlook on life in the wild, believing that nature is defined by "chaos, hostility and murder."
Yet the director's endless voice-overs and obtrusive presence prove the worst thing about Grizzly Man. At one point we see him, his back to camera, listening on headphones to the audiotape of the bear attack (Treadwell's camera ran with the lens cap on). He concludes that using the recording in the film would be too disturbing -- so why mention the tape's existence, except merely to titillate the audience?
Opponents of the green movement may embrace Grizzly Man because it confirms stereotypes of environmental activists as kooky and deluded. Herzog minimizes the conservation issues and avoids the notion that Treadwell's extreme, ill-fated activities may have served some good, if only early in his career. Still, you can't argue with Grizzly Man's conclusion that Treadwell's love of nature blinded him to its genuine perils. Treadwell may have imagined himself a "kind warrior," but he emerges as, at best, a holy fool or a babe in the woods.