Based on the footage in this film, Timothy Treadwell seems to have been so caught up in environmental causes he refused to coexist with other humans – that he happened to film some amazing material in the thirteen Summers he spent living with bears in Alaska is an unexpected benefit. That Werner Herzog falls for the myth without adequately exploring the details is the greatest shame of Grizzly Man.
Treadwell’s at times bizarre behaviour makes him an anti-hero at best. Sure he was charming in his way – he was able to sell himself as protector/hero of the bears, all the time playing up on the danger to himself – but much of his self-promotion seems to have been just that. Many others who also believe in animal rights, and the protection of the wilderness, shunned him for his dangerous behaviour. Sadly, he was able to ensnare Amie Huguenard in his life, leading ultimately to her death.
That he wouldn’t even allow her to appear in any footage is an example of Treadwell’s mental state – he seems to have convinced himself he was the sole protector of the bears, the only one who cared, and part of selling that concept to the world had to include film of him – and him alone – living with the animals. Herzog points out that Huguenard appears only twice on camera in two Summers spent living with Treadwell. According to Herzog, his failure to interact with other people led directly to their unexpected return to the wild in Autumn. This time is recognised as especially dangerous, as the food sources have dried up, and the bears have an absolute imperative to eat prior to hibernating, as the only way they can survive the Winter. And thus to their deaths.
Herzog brushes over this fact, almost like it doesn’t matter that Treadwell shares responsibility for Huguenard’s death at the paws of an animal she was afraid of. A brief section of this film deals with this part of the story, before we move on to ‘testimony’ from medical examiners – who seem to have been too caught up with being on camera to be at all sensible – that Treadwell died a hero, trying to save Amie to the last. We are also witness to a scene in which an ME returns Treadwell’s still-ticking watch to his former lover. Scenes such as this bring an element of unreality to a film that is trying to sell Treadwell’s world as reality.
Treadwell did take some amazing film of the wildlife of Alaska, but does that excuse him for his behaviour, or the death of Huguenard? Herzog continues to explain for Treadwell throughout his narration, never allowing the footage to speak for itself. He may have been trying to present a portrait, but instead he ends up only becoming Treadwell’s greatest apologist. Grizzly Man does paint a portrait, in spite of Herzog, the writer, director and narrator. He wishes us to see Treadwell as heroicly misguided, when surely he bears at least partial responsibility for Huguenard’s (and his own) death. The attempt at being even-handed comes off only as uncritical.Rating: