"March of the Penguins
" is the nature documentary receiving all of the attention and box office glory this summer, but for a motion picture experience that packs a more significant emotional wallop, "Grizzly Man" is superior in every way. The story of Timothy Treadwell, a fervent, unequivocal animal lover who spent thirteen straight summers living amongst the bears in the remote Alaskan peninsula until his and his girlfriend's violent deaths at the hands of one of them in October of 2003, director Werner Herzog intersperses the usual talking heads interviews with a large helping of actual footage Timothy shot of himself in the years leading up to his untimely, but not surprising, fate. The result is a mostly unbiased, deeply impassioned film that, like the best documentaries, transcends the said format and could enrapture wide audiences who do not normally see non-fictional cinema.
In light of the gruesome end he ultimately met, watching Timothy (taken from over 100 hours of footage that was found) as he interacts with the wildlife and pours out his soul to the camera on the importance of his protecting them from poachers and a society that doesn't seem to care is downright haunting and at times even uncomfortable. A troubled man who, through interviews with his family and friends we discover was saved by his love for these animals after alcohol abuse problems and a failed attempt at an acting career, Timothy comes off as brave, sometimes erratic, possibly crazy, but never less than a charming, kind-hearted soul. He did not let the extreme danger of the situations he put himself in get in the way of his passion for these wild animals, or, as some people describe him, his very transformation into a bear himself.
At one point, Timothy lies crouched in his tent, the pouring rain outside weighing down on the shelter supports, and he excitedly says that even at this moment, in the most uncomfortable of situations, he absolutely loves what he is doing. One finds themselves not only believing him, but also either understanding the feeling of being able to do one's life's work, or longing to find that sort of calling ourselves. When not braving the weather, Timothy is one with the nature around him, the foxes becoming his makeshift pets and even the bears, whom he can tell apart and names, growing accustomed to his presence there year after year. When he comes upon a dead, mangled baby fox at one point, he mourns its passing, and the viewer sympathizes with him even as the clip confirms the ruthless, savage, natural process of life. Nature can be and is a beautiful, majestic thing, but it's also arguably unfair and indisputably barbaric, with each species just a notch on the food chain.
In bringing Timothy Treadwell's story to the big screen, it isn't difficult to understand what director Werner Herzog saw in him. He was an endless fascinating person, generous and warm-hearted despite simply not ever feeling as if he was suited for the human world, and the footage seen is intimate, thought-provoking, poetic without meaning to be, at times funny, and unshakably poignant. Time and again, Timothy's impending fate of being attacked and eaten by the creature he gave his life to is portentously foreshadowed with his truthful declarations of the continuous threats around him and his claim that "I will die for these animals." Just as ominous is his appearance on "The Late Show," with David Letterman jokingly asking Timothy Treadwell if we will ever see his face on the news reporting that he has been eaten by one of the bears.
Coincidentally, the camera (its cap still on the lens) was rolling when he and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed, and the audio of that deadly attack survived. Although we do not get to hear it, it is explained in graphic detail by the medical examiner, and his words alone are so frightening to comprehend that that is all we need. Indeed, upon hearing it for the first time, Herzog is so chilled to the bone that he advises the owner, a good friend and former girlfriend of Timothy's who has not listened herself, to destroy the tape or face the risk that she one day will not be able to resist the temptation of playing the atrocity it contains.
"Grizzly Man" is a first-rate, exceedingly moving drama and as honest and fitting a eulogy as Timothy Treadwell could have ever hoped for. If director Werner Herzog cannot resist throwing in a few pretentious musings here and there in his narration (he says during an aerial shot of winter in Alaska that the mountainous terrain of ice is a metaphor for Timothy's tortured nature), that is an almost nonexistent price to pay for how very powerful of an impact the film, and Timothy, makes on the audience. At the end, in footage shot only hours before the attack and containing the very bear that might have taken his life, Herzog quite astutely makes the observation that, as much as Timothy adored and cherished these animals, they were still ferocious and untamed, with carnivorous instincts to survive at any cost. As for Timothy, he may have been tragically and abruptly taken from the earth, but there can still be some comfort in knowing that he died doing what he lived for, and he wouldn't have had it any other way. The rest of us can only hope to be so lucky. "Grizzly Man" is a profound, fair-minded, astonishing cinematic work, and maybe the most gratifying and complete documentary release since 2002's "Bowling for Columbine