Overview: Documentarian Werner Herzog tackles the true story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who lived among grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness before being killed by one of the very bears he swore to protect. Lions Gate; 2005; Rated R; 103 minutes.
The Story: Herzog tells the story of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, who were both killed in a bear attack in 2003, by compiling Treadwell’s personal videos and interviewing family, friends, and wildlife experts. Treadwell recorded extensive footage of his time in the wilderness. Some of the film’s highlights come from captured intimate interactions with animals. In one scene, Treadwell sits, petting a young fox, pleading that people stop hunting foxes and destroying the land of the animals. From a filmmaking standpoint, Treadwell’s footage is a marvel of the beauty of nature. But Herzog’s film is about more than showcasing Treadwell’s footage.
Uncovering Timmy: With a story as sensational as this one, it would be easy for the film to slip into exploitation. Indeed, Treadwell’s untimely death at the claws of one of the bears he claimed to understand and fight for is a controversial subject. But with Grizzly Man, Herzog makes an effort to see Timothy Treadwell as more than a crazed fanatic or a figurehead for misguided blind passion. Through this exploration, Herzog manages to uncover and paint a portrait of a man who loved with devotion, who felt every emotion deeply, and who genuinely seemed to believe he was saving the world. Through interviews with close friends and family, Herzog uncovers Treadwell’s misunderstood and troubled nature. He was flawed and yes, probably very misguided, but he tried his best to do what he thought was right. Herzog shows every aspect of his often contradictory subject. Treadwell was angry at authority, yet painfully tender. His decisions were frustrating, yet inspiring. Viewers are left to craft their own beliefs about whether Treadwell was right or wrong in his actions.
Herzog’s Voice: That’s not to say that Herzog’s voice isn’t clear in this film. On the contrary, he makes his opinions about Treadwell’s actions incredibly clear. As a filmmaker, Herzog rarely shies away from injecting his films with a strong dose of his own voice. Grizzly Man is no exception. Herzog explicitly states that he doesn’t agree with or understand Treadwell’s adoration for wild animals. In one scene, Herzog admits that he sees nothing but dangerous instinct when he looks into the eyes of a bear.
Overall: Grizzly Man is a fair and honest study of a complicated man, a fascinating story of true horror and tragedy, and a testament to the wonder of animals and nature. Despite Herzog’s fundamental disagreement with Treadwell’s actions, Grizzly Man never judges it subject. Instead, it focuses on what it means to be different and how it feels to fully love. Herzog’s carefully crafted narrative suggests there could be a little bit of Treadwell in all of us.