Timothy Treadwell as Himself
Jewel Palovak as Herself
Werner Herzog as Himself
While Timothy Treadwell’s nature footage is a wonder to behold, Werner Herzog’s pretentious manipulation of the material turns what might have been an interesting nature film into a biased character study.
Timothy Treadwell lived in the wilds of Alaska for thirteen summers, befriending and filming the grizzly bears while trying to protect them from poachers. Even though he considered himself to be an expert, few were surprised when he and his girlfriend Amy Huguenard turned up dead and half-eaten by the bears they were protecting. Director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo) assembled some of Treadwell’s footage along with interviews with those who knew him to find out if Treadwell’s work was legitimate or lunacy.
If he were still alive, filmmaker and animal lover Timothy Treadwell may have kicked himself for not trying to do a less ambitious project, like spending a year in Antarctica filming penguins. His desire to film and live with bears in the wild, even trying to become one himself, ultimately ended up being his undoing.
Thankfully, hundreds of hours of his footage survived, and we have the opportunity to learn more about this Captain Kangaroo of the nature set and his work through his films. Treadwell fashioned himself as an adventurer, but his goal was to try to attain the stature of a nature celebrity like “The Crocodile Hunter.” With Grizzly Man, he kind of does. As it opens, Treadwell introduces himself in the first of many on-camera soliloquies that immediately makes you wonder if this guy is for real. Treadwell’s most obvious fault is that he decided to film all of his personal thoughts side-by-side with his nature footage, and a lot of the former makes him come across as unbalanced. Though he often shows off his arrogance, Treadwell also had a sensitive side, and at times, you can tell that he really loves these animals, at times maybe too much. (Put it this way I wouldn’t leave any pets with him over the weekend.)
Although at first, Grizzly Man might seem like a nature film, it’s really more of a character study of Treadwell and his way of thinking. Sadly, this man, who believed so much in the animals who he befriended, comes across as a bit of a laughing stock. Much of the blame can be pinned on the documentary’s director Werner Herzog, who got his hands on Treadwell’s footage and immediately tried to turn it into the most important discovery since Capone’s vault. Like Michael Moore, Herzog tends to permeate every frame of his own work, adding his own commentary and analysis to all of Treadwell’s footage. Maybe if Herzog weren’t such an opinionated filmmaker in his own right, you might be able to appreciate Treadwell’s childlike innocence, but the way that it’s colored by Herzog, Treadwell comes across like an escaped mental patient. More than that, Herzog often tries to make something from nothing, as every branch moving in the wind is somehow significant.
Herzog’s manipulations are the most apparent during some of the interviews in scenes which seem almost as if they were staged. At one point, the coroner who did Treadwell’s autopsy gives his good friend Jewel Palovak, one of the film’s many executive producers, the watch found in Treadwell’s remains. It’s a scene that seems so contrived that it takes the film further away from seeming like a documentary and makes you wonder if this whole thing is an elaborate hoax ala Zak Penn’s “Incident at Loch Ness,” which also starred Herzog. Herzog’s interviews aren’t much better as his subjects come across like they’re reading lines off a prompter as they stare at the camera like a deer caught in the headlights.
The film isn’t edited particularly well either, jumping back and forth from the details surrounding Treadwell’s death to more tranquil moments from his film footage. There’s no real flow to the storytelling, which is quite surprising, considering the epic nature of Herzog’s own dramas.
As pretentious as the film becomes under Herzog’s direction, there are still a few moments that come across as quite powerful, such as the summer drought which sees the animals killing and eating each other, causing Treadwell great distress. The huge thunderstorms that follow, which almost tear up Treadwell’s campground, causes equal amounts of elation, but the more time Treadwell spends in the wild, the nuttier and more paranoid he becomes.
The bigger mystery is that of Treadwell’s girlfriend Amie Huguenard who only appears on film twice. Treadwell works so hard to maintain the illusion that he’s a loner that we never know much about her personality or why she decided to stick by her man even until his death. As hard as he tries, that’s one thing that Herzog can’t decipher either.
Knowing the film’s premise, some may go in half expecting and half fearing that they’ll be subjected to footage of Treadwell’s grisly (no pun intended) death–some may even get a thrill from the idea–but in a bit of irony, the one time Treadwell didn’t take the lens cap off his camera was when he was being attacked and killed by the bear. Because of this, there’s audio of his death, which Herzog chooses not to play. Instead, we get a reenactment of what was on the tape’s audio by the coroner, and then footage of Herzog listening to the tape as Jewel watches on pensively. In some ways, it’s a bit of a copout, because Herzog refuses to share the most important piece of information in Treadwell’s story. It makes you wonder whether Bowling for Columbine might have been half as powerful if Michael Moore described the famous school shootings or the 9/11 attacks, rather than showing them.
Kudos must go to Herzog for making this film happen and bringing Richard Thompson on board, because the film’s pleasant and unobtrusive score is quite perfect. Although Thompson’s closing song is a touching tribute to Treadwell, it does little to silence the omnipresent drone of Herzog’s voice.
The Bottom Line:
Treadwell’s nature footage is quite beautiful, showing things that no other human has ever seen. Besides finding and editing down the footage, Herzog’s contribution tends to detract rather than add to it, although nature lovers should still be able to appreciate this for what it is.
Grizzly Man opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.