Timothy Treadwell appeared on “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2001 to talk about his book, “Among Grizzlies,” and how he’d spent each of the previous 10-plus summers living with the bears in Alaska. Letterman jokes, “Are we gonna read an article someday that you’ve been eaten by one of these bears?” And everyone laughs, and Treadwell says no, and then sure enough, two years later, one of the bears eats him.
The story is so perfect you’d think it was fiction. The fact that the director, Werner Herzog, was involved in a faux documentary last year (“Incident at Loch Ness”) invites further suspicion. And yet this story is true. News stories covering Treadwell’s ironical death are readily available; obviously the Letterman footage is real. What Herzog has is the ability to know a good story when he sees one, and except for providing narration (in his hilariously precise German accent), he mostly stays out of the way of this one.
The story of Tim Treadwell, Malibu hippie and wildlife enthusiast, is a tragic but predictable one. None of his friends was surprised when his remains were discovered in the fall of 2003. They knew he was slipping further from reality with each passing year, growing too intense in his love for the bears and in his distaste for human society. The bears didn’t know his mission was to protect them from hunters and poachers, that he loved them more than anything. They were wild animals. Sooner or later, one of them was going to kill him.
Treadwell documented himself and the bears extensively with video footage, and Herzog’s distillation of those tapes comprises the bulk of the film. We see him giving Crocodile Hunter-style dissertations in the foreground while bears do their thing in the background, apathetic to him. He often mentions the possibility of being hurt by the bears, but always glibly, the way kids in a carnival’s spook alley refer to encountering ghosts: it’s a thrilling idea, but you don’t really think it will happen.
Some of this footage is astonishing. He had absolutely no fear of these animals, facing the camera with his back to the bears, who were often no more than 10 or 15 feet away. He spoke endlessly of how he loved them and would gladly die for them. He gave them adorable names like Aunt Melissa and Mr. Chocolate. The film doesn’t mention it, but he had no formal training in any field remotely related to what he was doing. He was, like Tracy Morgan’s “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet” character on “Saturday Night Live,” just a guy who loved animals and hardly knew a thing about them. A wildlife official interviewed by Herzog says it best: “The only reason he lasted as long as he did is the bears probably thought there was something wrong with him, like he was mentally retarded or something.”
Treadwell, who looked younger than his 46 years, a blond combination of Carson Kressley and Crispin Glover, talked often of wanting to BE a bear. He was also a fastidious amateur filmmaker, often re-doing his narrations several times to get them just right. Though his girlfriend Amie Huguenard often spent the summers with him, he generally gave the impression on-camera that he was alone. Amie was killed with him, but she appears only briefly in any of the footage leading up to it.
You are wondering whether this very thorough amateur wildlife photographer captured his own death on camera, and the answer is sort of. The camera was on, but so was the lens cap, suggesting the attack occurred at a time when Treadwell was not shooting and that he barely had time to get the camera started when things turned bad. There is a scene in the movie of Herzog listening to the audio footage captured by the lens-capped camera, followed by Herzog urging the friend of Treadwell’s who had it never to listen to it, to destroy the tape. Maybe she did. Either way, we never hear it. I’m a little annoyed that Herzog shows himself listening to it, as if to taunt us: “I got to hear it; you don’t.” I’m sure it’s horrific, but part of me really wants to know what it sounds like.
Treadwell’s footage shows him to be unaccepting of the realities of nature. A drought that threatens some of the bears infuriates him to the point of childish raving. At other times, he seems in denial of the fact that bears are omnivores that sometimes eat other animals and yes, even other bears. He rhapsodizes on the beauty and majesty of animals, yet dissolves into an embarrassing tantrum when a fox steals his hat. I wouldn’t let this man own a puppy, let alone live with bears.
Herzog points out in the narration that he is accustomed to seeing actors behave this erratically; those familiar with Herzog’s long-standing relationship with the insane Klaus Kinski will smile at the comparison. Yet Treadwell’s madness and obsession are more disturbing than funny. This is a riveting film, made all the more fascinating because it’s true. Sure as bears crap in the woods, one of them was crapping Timothy Treadwell for days. And Treadwell was probably honored.
B+ (1 hr., 43 min.; )