Review by: Witney Seibold
Timothy Treadwell, a hard-working environmentalist, over the course of thirteen summers, traveled to Alaska in order to protect the grizzly bears in the area from any potential threat. He filmed his travails. He taught children about the bears free of charge. At the end of the thirteenth summer, he nobly sacrificed his life protecting these noble beasts. He was enthusiastic, bright-eyed, emotional.
Timothy Treadwell was also not his real name. He invented an upbringing in Australia, and turned his back on his Long Island childhood. He had no education in biology. He was a failed actor. He was a recovering addict. His own documentary persona was a carefully presented construct. Eventually he began to break down in front of his camera, railing against poachers, God, the park service, and humanity in general. He was eaten by an old bear after unexpectedly extending his thirteenth summer. His girlfriend at the time, Amie Huguenard, was also an unintended victim.
Who better to make a film about this man than Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who has dealt with passion-bordering-on-madness-or-perhaps-just-plain-madness his entire career (My Best Fiend, Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek, et al)? In his film, Herzog culls together interviews with friends and family, talks to the coroner in the case, and, for the bulk of the film, edits together revealing footage shot by Treadwell himself. Herzog narrates. At one point we see Herzog listening to the tape Timothy was shooting at the moment of his and Amie’s death (the lenscap was left on). He insists that the tape be destroyed. We, the audience, are thankfully spared that particular horror. The result of all this is an utterly fascinating, maddening, and brilliant portrait of a man so devoted to an image of himself that he was willing to die for it. He wanted to come across as the stalwart hero of nature, but was more just like an earthier version of the crazy cat lady. Tim’s mistake was anthropomorphizing and loving (and incidentally dying at the hands of) a wild animal who regularly feasts on smaller creatures like himself. He treated the bears as pets, and cooing baby names to a 1,000-pound grizzly will not subdue it.
Observing a man like this, however, one must address the issue of exploitation. Was Herzog exploiting Treadwell? Was he pointing, amused at the crazy guy? I think not. Herzog has always been drawn, in his films, to those living in the fringes. His fascination with more extreme modes of thought springs from an odd need to mesh humankind’s perceived order with its natural chaos. Timothy Treadwell was an emotional man. He was also damaged. His story is a tragic one in that his misguided obsessions led to two deaths. It’s also a grand example of poetic hubris.