The subject of Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell, was an odd duck. In a nutshell, he was born and raised in Florida, then headed on out to California to become an actor. When that didn't pan out for him like he'd hoped, he somehow managed to get the funding together to start making annual trips out to Alaska every summer for thirteen years where he lived alone (save for his thirteenth and final year where he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Amy Huguenard) and unarmed among the grizzly bears that live in the area.
Treadwell's self proclaimed goal was to protect the bears and study them and to more or less become one with them. During the winter months he would travel around to different schools and present his information and his findings to children without ever asking for a fee, simply to spread the word and get his message out. For the last four years that Treadwell made these expeditions, he brought along some video camera equipment so that he could record his findings and at some point get some of the footage out either via a television show or documentary of some kind. In the summer of 2003, Treadwell and Huguenard were eaten by one of the grizzly bears that he loved so much, and he'd never get the chance to see where his material would end up.
Herzog's film is a truly interesting and unusual film, which is probably what most of us would expect from the man at this point in his career. He doesn't delve too deep into Treadwell's background save for a brief interview with his parents and a couple of friends but instead focuses almost completely on his work in Alaska and the enigmatic way in which he went about his work. Through some fascinating clips and interviews with those who knew him and worked with him, Herzog paints a picture of a very confused man. There's no doubt that Treadwell loved and respected the animals he found himself surrounded by summer after summer, but some of the footage that Herzog incorporates into the documentary paints a different portrait than the 'brave environmentalist' Treadwell made himself out to be.
As such, Grizzly Man is full of contrasts. One moment we see Treadwell peacefully approaching a fox who he has befriended, later we see him chase down and curse out a fox who has stolen his cap and run into his den with it. We see him talk in an almost soothing, 'baby talk' manner to the grizzly bears in plenty of scenes, and then later on see him burst into an explosion of profanity (at which point Herzog, in a round about way, makes an amusing comparison to his experiences with the late Klaus Kinski) when attempting to sum up his summer's accomplishments by discussing the forest rangers and the government restrictions he has issues with. He constantly reminds us that he wants to protect the bears but by letting them become acclimated to his presence, he's actually disturbing their way of life even if he does have somewhat noble intentions. Another very interesting contrast is the sheer optimism and joy shown by Treadwell throughout a lot of the film for what he's doing, and the pessimistic and fairly bleak narration by Herzog himself.
Grizzly Man is full of strange little moments that really make you think about what Treadwell was doing out there. If his intentions were solely to save grizzly bears, would he be so concerned with his hair on camera? Would he be doing multiple takes and would he be posing for the camera so often? His girlfriend, Amy, who showed up with him for the last summer he was there, almost never appears on camera and when she does, it seems to be by accident as Treadwell is very obviously trying to keep up the illusion that he was alone out there at all times. At times, he seems quite the egotist, but other times, he does show genuine concern for the well being of the animals in the area as demonstrated when he finds the paw of a bear cub who was killed and eaten by other, older bears in the area during a food shortage. Herzog points out through his narration during one scene that Treadwell at times almost uses the camera as a sort of confessional booth, and this is a very astute observation. Throughout the duration of the documentary we not only see this gorgeous footage of Alaska's natural beauty and of these fantastic bears out there in the wild, but we also see and hear Timothy unload on the camera. At one point he mentions that he wishes he was gay because the female trouble he's been having is so complicated, another time he talks to a bear about how he's had trouble with girls plenty of times in the past. He divulges these strange thoughts, private feelings, to the camera though whether or not he ever intended for us to ever see all of it remains a mystery.
In the end, the documentary doesn't really give us a definitive answer as to what Treadwell was doing out there, as no one really seems to know. His friends and fellow ecologists at an animal rights organization he co-founded called Grizzly People see him as a bit of a martyr while some of the locals who lived in the area blatantly state that they feel he got what he deserved – grizzly bears are, after all, mean and nasty wild animals who don't play well with others. Treadwell seems to have been self taught, he didn't really seem to know what he was doing out there and his healthy fear of the grizzly bear soon crumbled and lead way to the dangerous self confidence that ultimately became his downfall.
It's an interesting portrait that would have been stronger had we been given a bit more information on Treadwell's childhood and upbringing to maybe give us a stronger psychological portrait of this unusual and obviously misguided man. That is the film's one noticeable flaw – it feels incomplete in spots – but it's easy to look past it and enjoy Grizzly Man for what it is: a strange film about a strange man by an insanely talented and equally strange director.
NOTE: As pointed out on the DVD Talk forum, the DVD version of the movie is missing the scene where Treadwell appears on TV with David Letterman, probably due to a rights issue of some sort (which would explain the 'this film has been modified' message that precedes the feature).
Most of the 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen image in this movie is taken from Treadwell's own footage, which was captured usually by himself on video cameras out in the Alaskan bush. With that in mind, most of the material here is in pretty good shape. There's a decent level of both foreground and background detail and the image is quite sharp considering the equipment that it was captured on. In terms of authoring, there's a bit of aliasing in some scenes but no real problems with mpeg compression artifacts or harsh edge enhancement. The picture is clean and free of dirt and debris and the color reproduction on the disc is very good as the greens and blues look very nice and very natural in the outdoor scenes. Not a perfect transfer, but all things considered, a very good one.
Again, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround Audio does show some of the limitations of Treadwell's footage in that sometimes you'll hear the wind hit the microphone and sometimes the dialogue isn't one hundred percent crystal clear but considering it was shot by a lone man in the woods it's not half bad. Herzog's narration sounds clean and clear and comes through nicely, as does the score and the background music that is used throughout the movie. The newly recorded interviews also sound quite good, and you won't really have any problems following anything. Just don't go in expecting this to sound like War Of The Worlds. There are no alternate language dubbed tracks, but there are Spanish subtitles and English language closed captions provided on the DVD.
Aside from the trailer for the film and a few trailers for other, completely unrelated Lion's Gate DVD releases, the only other supplement on this release is In The Edges: The Grizzly Man Sessions. While you might read this and scoff at only one extra feature, this look at the making of the music for the film clocks in at almost fifty minutes in length and proves to be pretty extensive and also quite interesting. Herzog takes us through the process through which the score was composed for the movie from preliminary meetings with some of the musicians involved in the project through to the actual recording sessions themselves. We learn what he hoped to accomplish through specific themes that come through in the compositions and the documentary is spiced up with plenty of interesting interview footage as well as some more footage taken from the material that Treadwell shot throughout his various expeditions. More than your average talking head segment of electronic press kit promo piece, this is very in depth and much more interesting than you'd probably expect it to be. Herzog's commentary tracks are always fascinating and it's a bit of a disappointment that there isn't one included here, but the featurette is quite good none the less.
Regardless of how you feel about Timothy Treadwell and his exploits, there's no denying the compelling power of Werner Herzog's film. While more background information on the main subject might have helped flesh things out more, Herzog's movie puts us right in there with Treadwell and lets us make up our own minds as to whether he was a true environmentalist or simply a misguided fool. The DVD from Lion's Gate looks and sounds very nice and the extras, will rather narrow in focus, are interesting. Grizzly Man comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.