It's easy to come away from the new Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man, persuaded that its subject was a delusional crackpot who deserved his fate: to be killed and eaten by a bear.
That certainly is the popular impression of Timothy Treadwell, who died in Alaska nearly two years ago at the claws and fangs of a creature whose protection he had championed.
But like the man whose life and work it analyzes, Grizzly Man is a complex piece of work, and it is more than a superficial character study. As it fills in the contradictory and frequently infuriating details of Treadwell's outsized personality, it invites reflection on the similarly complicated relationship between Americans and our shrinking wilderness.
Herzog, a film director more known for deeply individualistic features than for traditional documentaries, was no doubt drawn to the story by many of the same characteristics that drove heavy media attention after Treadwell's death. There was profound irony at the heart of the event: a defender of wildlife being slaughtered by one of the animals he sought to protect from slaughter.
But there were other plot elements that made the story even more irresistible: the death of Treadwell's girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who stuck by her companion during the attack rather than flee for her life and thereby doomed herself to share his fate; the lurid and rare spectacle of a human being demoted to a subordinate rank in the food chain; the I-told-you-so response from the biologists and park officials with whom Treadwell had feuded, who said they'd warned him for years that he was courting death by not taking proper precautions.
The cartoonish picture of Treadwell that emerged from news coverage of the fatal attack was that of a confused and foolish man — well-intentioned but not very bright — who paid with his life because he ignored the advice of those who were wiser.
Herzog's documentary about Treadwell's life and death, drawn largely from the 100 or so hours of gripping video footage Treadwell shot during his 13 summers on the Alaskan peninsula, manages to turn the cartoon character into a real person. It is not a flattering portrait, for it reveals Treadwell to have been narcissistic and misguided.
Similar traits are apparent in Treadwell's 1997 book about his experiences, Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska. He exaggerates his role as the bears' guardian against development of their habitat, poaching and other threats. Poaching, though, has never been much of an issue in Alaska, where grizzlies may be hunted legally, and the area in which he spent most of his time is already protected from development because it’s in a national park.
He also fails to appreciate how his frequent interference in the bears’ activities negates any potential scientific value of his observations of their behavior, which he altered even as he was observing it.
But the film makes it clear that Treadwell was sincere in his uncritical love of the wilderness and its inhabitants, and that the backcountry served him as a healing refuge from modern American life. Treadwell is hardly the only person to find the urban environment spiritually toxic, and to flee for refuge into the wild. American history is littered with poets, writers and just plain folks who have done the same.
For those tempted to write off Treadwell as just a pampered city kid playing a survivalist game in the bush, the film helps show how difficult it is to live alone, or nearly so, for months at a time on a soggy, bug-infested coastal plain periodically whipped by powerful storms and located hundreds of miles from telephones, electricity, plumbing and medical aid. Beneath Treadwell's goofy, childlike surface was an inner toughness.
Grizzly Man is a reminder that, for all his romanticizing of the half-ton predators among whom he lived — giving them cute names and imputing to them human emotions and motivations — Treadwell managed to avoid trouble for many years. His scientific insights may have been mostly trivial, but he understood something about bear behavior. Or maybe he was just lucky, and then his luck ran out.
What Treadwell's story ultimately tells us is that despite the fervent wish of many to believe otherwise, wild creatures, like the landscape they inhabit, are indifferent to human needs and desires. Whether you regard this as gratifying or annoying says more about you than about them.