Nominee: Best Spiritual Documentary of 2005
Uncomfortable in civilization, Timothy Treadwell seeks to blur the lines between human and animal. He befriends grizzly bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park. Armed with a video camera, he aims to preserve the innocence and purity of the natural world. His footage is beautiful and haunting, right until the last reel, when his "friends" devour Timothy and his companion, Amie Huguenard.
Those who prefer their spirituality fuzzy, ethereal, and idealistic may find "Grizzly Man" off-putting. It suggests that physical hunger and animalistic instinct top all efforts to reason with a desperate bear. Biology becomes destiny, despite Timothy's boyish efforts to anthropomorphize savage beasts. Treadwell's naivete falls prey to chaotic and destructive forces.
Yet, "Grizzly Man" never descends into despair. Man versus nature becomes an opportunity for dueling worldviews, courtesy of director Werner Herzog. In an era of invasive, tell-all videos, Herzog demonstrates remarkable restraint. Some things are better left unseen. Ace editor Joe Bini combs through 100 hours of footage to cull the most telling moments. Treadwell could easily have been reduced to a foppish eco-warrior. Hubris and madness intermingle. He rails against God, begging for rain to feed the animals. Miraculously, "Grizzly Man" manages to dignify his spiritual longing while exploding the myth of idyllic nature. It reminds us why civilization must be cultivated. Treadwell fled society in search of something sweet and pure. Timothy (and the viewers) find all-too-fleeting glimpses of the elusive peace he seeks.
A trailer for Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" compelled me to see it. Its brief summation of the life of a man, Timothy Treadwell, who chose to live alone amongst some of the most dangerous animals on the planet, captivated me. And when I discovered his death was a direct result of his unbounded obsession with those terrible grizzly bears, I couldn't recall the last time I had been so intrigued by a documentary. Trailers can be surprisingly effective.
As much as I'd prepared myself to like this film, it fell surprisingly short of my expectations. Werner Herzog's directorial style and narration distracted from the subject matter; at times, the film feels so formal or stylized that the testimony of friends, family, and experts comes across as forced or rehearsed, making the story--and a man's life--appear insincere.
Whether intentional or not, Timothy Treadwell is revealed as a vain, self-serving, self-important man who made it his life's mission to protect the majestic grizzly bear of the Alaskan wilderness--alone, isolated, and cut-off. The effects of his solitude are made startlingly clear. Almost childlike, he continually refers to his animal neighbors as his "friends," gives the bears names like "Mr. Brown" and "Wendy," and befriends a family of foxes with which he sets up camp. In his moments of deepest desperation and loneliness, Treadwell speaks to God (multiple gods actually) and even thinks of his time with the bears, with all animals really, as some kind of religious experience or divine effort--to the point where he is compelled to state, "God likes the work I'm doing."
Other than a minor examination of our humanity and the fragility of life, "Grizzly Man" sheds little light on the human condition and devotes most of its time to the ramblings of a self-deluded or perhaps misunderstood man. Documentaries are often designed to lead us somewhere, either linearly or emotionally, but by the end of this film, I was directionless.