Bear in mind
The late Timothy Treadwell, man-child lover of bears and their would-be protector as well, is the Grizzly Man in Werner Herzog’s new feature-length documentary. Or maybe the title links also to the director himself—gruff, fierce, illusionless, unafraid to move in for the kill.
But, one or both—it’s not that simple. The bear-booster Treadwell is a po-mo wilderness hero, but in manner more than actual effect. And Herzog’s emerging portrait of the guy dredges up biographical sidelights and detours that reveal patterns of desperate questing—and contradictions that smack of pathological ills.
And Herzog, for his part, pulls no punches in challenging Treadwell’s coyly sentimental perspective on “his” bears, and yet the director’s overall approach is marked more by cautiously attentive sympathy and a worldly sort of curiosity. Treadwell thus joins ranks with the overreachers and larger-than-life nut-cases that populate Herzog’s documentaries and fictional dramas alike.
Treadwell’s basic story—13 seasons living dangerously close to the bears in an Alaskan wildlife reserve, recording and sometimes juicing up his exploits with self-shot video footage, until finally getting killed along with his visiting girlfriend by a bear in 2003—has obvious inherent interest. But Herzog has never been one to settle for the obvious, and so Grizzly Man also gives us intriguing glimpses of Treadwell’s parents and friends and ex-lovers and works up quietly acerbic mini-portraits of assorted interviewees—a bush pilot, a couple of environmentalists, a medical examiner who is weirdly forthcoming with gory details.
Herzog’s pungent voiceover commentary sharpens the film throughout, and he produces some gravely spectacular footage of landscapes pertinent to the story. But the best moments in the film come mostly from excerpts of Treadwell’s own video footage, which are made all the more effective by Herzog’s careful selection and terse commentaries.