Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog's melancholy, clear-eyed documentary examines the life and death of grizzly enthusiast Timothy Treadwell in light of a long history of men who have been sickened by civilization's discontents and convinced their cure lay in the wild. A bear killed Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in 2003; he left behind more than 100 hours of footage...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Werner Herzog's melancholy, clear-eyed documentary examines the life and death of grizzly enthusiast Timothy Treadwell in light of a long history of men who have been sickened by civilization's discontents and convinced their cure lay in the wild. A bear killed Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, in 2003; he left behind more than 100 hours of footage shot in Alaska's Katmai National Park and a chilling audio record of his last encounter with the animals he loved not wisely but too well. Born Timothy Dexter in New York, Treadwell began a long spiral into drugs, drinking and petty crime in his late teens. He moved to Los Angeles, changed his name, failed to win the role in TV's Cheers that made Woody Harrelson famous and reinvented himself as an extreme environmentalist on a mission to protect Alaska's grizzlies from poachers. He spent 13 summers camping in Katmai, cheek by jowl with the top-of-the-food-chain predators he burdened with silly names like "Mr. Chocolate." They became so habituated to Treadwell's presence that he could approach to within a few feet and film them feeding, fighting and romping. Treadwell proselytized for grizzlies in schools and on television, inspired intense loyalty among a far-flung community of passionate conservationists and antagonized wildlife experts who argued that wild animals are better served by less human contact, not more. Treadwell declared his respect for grizzly bears, oblivious to suggestions that respecting bears means leaving them alone, not treating them like people in furry suits. Herzog makes extensive use of Treadwell's extraordinary nature footage, much of which includes Treadwell commenting, indulging in disingenuous philosophizing and delivering jeremiads against poachers, tourists and parks department employees. The juxtaposition reveals something darker than a man who overromanticized nature; beneath the goofy, boosting-for-bears persona is a seething pool of self-absorption, inchoate anger, paranoia and dishonesty. That Treadwell told his L.A. friends he was an Australian orphan was just peculiar. Omitting Huguenard from all but a few seconds of his footage because a girlfriend didn't jibe with his lonely nature-man persona was cruelly self-serving. Huguenard died after belaboring a bear with a frying pan in hopes that it would release Treadwell's head from its jaws. A rapt fascination with transcendent lunacy runs through Herzog's work, both fiction and documentary; while disdaining Treadwell's rhapsodically anthropomorphized vision of nature, he finds real nobility in Treadwell's commitment to an eccentric quest. His film is a subtle and deeply moving tribute to a flawed idealist who saw kinship in bears' eyes, where Herzog sees only the abysmal indifference of nature.

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