If March of the Penguins made you want to quit your job and become a field worker for an animal-rights organization, here's a chilling reminder that an outwardly pure and innocent desire to get closer to the wild can easily cross the line into the stupid, the selfish and the downright dangerous. Werner Herzog's documentary recovery project Grizzly Man analyzes the doomed back-to-nature campaign of one Timothy Treadwell, who got himself killed while trying to ensure the survival of the Alaskan grizzly bear or, depending on your outlook, seeking to metaphorically hide beneath its fur from a human world he was ill-equipped to handle.
A self-styled, self-motivated wildlife expert, Treadwell spent 13 summers living among the bears. He captured the last five of those on home video, not realizing that the footage he amassed would one day become his tombstone. One of the animals he so adored viciously mauled him as the cameras rolled but only an audio document of the fatal attack survived its claw-flashing chaos. (In one of Grizzly Man's most unsettling passages, Herzog dons headphones to listen to that awful artifact, and what he hears is apparently so gruesome that he promptly and firmly discourages one of Treadwell's grieving exes from ever listening to it herself.) Treadwell's demise looms over Herzog's film, tragic but hardly unpredictable not after we've seen repeated footage of the animal fancier putting his hands this close to a lumbering beast while speaking to it in soothing tones he alone is convinced will keep it at bay.
It worked for quite a while, though, and the ostensible success of his ecologically minded Goldilocks act made Treadwell a popular speaker at elementary schools and on TV shows like Late Night with David Letterman. One of Grizzly Man's strongest secondary effects is to make us ponder how such expert status could be conferred on a guy whose motives are so easily questioned. Many parks officials thought Treadwell was doing more harm than good, and the rambling, motormouth diatribes with which he filled his videos you've gotta talk about something when your co-stars don't speak English often depict a psyche that's alarmingly divorced from reality. God knows what the bears are making of it as he sobs about how much he loves them, then rails furiously against the human enemies (real or perceived) that he alleges are out to get both him and his furry pals.
Yes, Treadwell was a complicated soul. He battled substance addiction and lied (even to friends) about the basic facts of his upbringing. He was also a bit of a con man: Though another of his girlfriends accompanied him on his later excursions, she almost never appears on camera. He composed shots and scripted monologues alike to make himself appear totally isolated, when there was often a supply plane just out of the frame.
Yet he was also an unquestioned animal lover and a creditable documentarian who left behind some breathtaking footage that only the bravest of men could secure. This is the closest most viewers will ever get to a wild bear without a ranger's stun gun to back them up. The mixture of affection and fear you feel for the creatures as they frolic and fight mere inches from the lens imparts a sense of the animal world as something beautiful but unreachable a mighty force that deserves cultivation and protection, but also the respect of a carefully maintained distance.
Herzog, who narrates Grizzly Man, knows what visual gold he has inherited, even praising Treadwell's videographic "choices" as the unintended postmortem plays out before our eyes. Listening to one filmmaker critique another's work adds an extra layer of sophistication to the film. It makes us respect (if not always approve of) Treadwell's efforts and shows Herzog's multifaceted appreciation of the material he's been left to work with. The latter only errs when he imposes his personal philosophy on the proceedings, not merely questioning Treadwell's view of life and nature but injecting his own as a (presumably superior) alternative. Where Treadwell perceived something noble and gentle when he looked into the eyes of these creatures, Herzog says, he himself sees only a dull, amoral urge to feed. How Germanic. Faced with a nihilism that deep, I might run off and take my chances with the bears, too.