Timothy Treadwell was an amateur filmmaker and animal lover who, for thirteen summers, would go up to the Alaskan wilderness in order to film the local grizzlies and bond with them. In 2003, he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by one of their subjects. Veteran director Werner Herzog somehow was allowed access to Treadwell's 100-odd hours of video from his travels, and he uses them to create the standard wildlife documentary's evil twin.
In a way, the film is co-directed by Treadwell; aside from a few talking head interviews Herzog conducts with those who knew the late bear enthusiast, Grizzly Man consists mostly of the man's own footage. Much of that footage is remarkable: close-up shots of grizzlies in action that not even the bravest documentarian could capture, as well as increasingly revealing into-the-camera confessionals by the seemingly lighthearted Treadwell himself. But it is in the editing where the film is truly Herzog's. Always the clever storyteller, he jumps back and forth throughout the five years of footage to create a psychological narrative of Treadwell's "meltdown", rather than stitch together the footage chronologically.
Thus, while Herzog's rather portentous narration ("Thee landscape iz a metaphor for Treadvell'z tortured soul") seems an ill fit for the high-voiced, Peter Pan-like naturalist at first, as Grizzly Man unfurls, it reveals the man that Herzog is talking about: an angry, lonely failed actor whose treks into the wilderness were really an escape from humanity, and whose hubris - he had convinced himself that it was his duty to "protect" a group of bears that rangers insist were in no danger - was his ultimate downfall.
In this respect, Treadwell is very much the classic Herzog protagonist (such as the main characters in Herzog's best-known films Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo). His failure at becoming as one with all-conquering nature is what fascinates Herzog the most, and it reminded me very much of Jon Krakauer's non-fiction book Into the Wild, about Christopher McCandless, a misguided explorer whose bid to live off the land in Alaska ended with him starving to death in the cold. What's interesting is that both doomed adventurers come across as arrogant fools who deserved their fate, and yet both Herzog and Krakauer insist on having a sort of respect for their subjects.
That's the only thing that comes off as phony in Grizzly Man - Herzog's own brutal view of wildlife clashes so much with Treadwell's romanticized one that you wonder how Herzog could possibly like him. But there may be something of a joke in this, too. One even senses - especially with the stiff and seemingly rehearsed interviews with the too-weird-to-be-real characters from Treadwell's life and death - that the joke may even be on us. I actually had to look up Timothy Treadwell after seeing this film just to make sure he was a real person who was actually killed by a bear, and not just a character invented by Werner Herzog. That said, Grizzly Man is easily one of the most interesting films of 2005, and is well worth seeing.