Film review: Man joins beast in ‘Grizzly’

This has been a particularly good summer for documentaries, and ‘Grizzly Man’ adds to the illustrious list with its exploration of the barriers between man and beast that cannot be breached. Director Werner Herzog uses some of the 100 hours of footage shot by self-styled grizzly bear protector Timothy Treadwell in his mostly solitary 13 summers in the wilds of Alaska. Unlike more by-the-book profiles, this documentary offers an intimate window into its subject. By using Treadwell’s

own words, ideas and point of view, Herzog makes audiences feel as if they are poring over a video journal of a tortured soul. After a failed career as an actor and a stint as a waiter in a popular Los Angeles restaurant, Treadwell began spending his summers in the Alaskan wilderness. Often garrulous and manic, other times beset by self-doubt and paranoia, the boyish blond with a Prince Valiant haircut appeared to have suffered from mental illness. He could be sunny and sweet; he also was given to bouts of rage. Clearly he was an innocent, albeit with grandiose ideas, who believed that he could single-handedly protect the population of 35,000 grizzlies in Alaska.

Treadwell insisted that he saw himself as a bear and wished desperately to be one of the imposing but reclusive animals he adored. When they growled at him, he told them like a patient parent, “Don’t do that. I love you.” But he should have known that wild animals never can feel that same depth of attachment to humans. He stayed longer than usual during the summer of 2003, when food was scarce for the bears, and he and his girlfriend, Annie Huguenard, were mauled and eaten by grizzlies. Treadwell was 46.

Herzog neither mocks Treadwell nor reduces him to a caricature. And he does not glorify or laud the man. He merely tells the story of someone who sought meaning in his life. “I came, I saved, I protected and I studied,” Treadwell says in his almost childlike voice. “I’m the only protection for these animals.” He grew agitated at the thought of poachers or anyone interfering with the bears. When his motives or rational state were questioned, he howled at his camera: “How dare they challenge me? The government doesn’t look after these animals. Animals rule!”

Grizzly Man is a haunting and fascinating portrait of so much that is worth exploring: the implacability of nature, the hubris of human endeavor and the line between supreme dedication and madness. (‘Grizzly Man,’ Genre: Documentary, Directors: Werner Herzog, Distributor: Lions Gate Films, Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes)