Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog's documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who spent 13 consecutive summers (1991 through 2003) living with grizzly bears in Katmai Park on the Alaskan peninsula.
Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a grizzly in the fall of 2003.
During his last 5 summers in Katmai Park, Treadwell shot over 100 hours of video of his life among the grizzlies. This footage forms the core of Herzog's Grizzly Man. Treadwell was no casual videographer. It's obvious to the moviegoer that he was painstakingly shooting an autobiographical film, in which he would appear as the heroic grizzly protector.
At times it seems as if Herzog is straining to impose his own favorite themes on Treadwell's story. In voiceover, the director says that Treadwell rejected the human world and decamped for Alaska to fight his demons in "wild nature." Treadwell's own footage tells a different story. Frankly, he doesn't seem to be battling any demons to speak of. He sometimes angry or irritated. Informants who knew him assure us in interviews that Treadwell had a "dark side." But as far as we can see, he's seamlessly self-deluded.
As David Edelstein puts it:
The nutty thing about Treadwell is that—for all the talk of his "acting like a bear"—he's a dead ringer for Corky St. Clair, the gay theater director played by Christopher Guest in Guest's Waiting for Guffman. There is the same self-dramatization ("I am a samurai warrior when challenged!"), the same wounded petulance, the same overflowing sentimentality: "I love you! I love you!... He's a big bear, yes he is."
We only see Treadwell when he knows he's on camera, usually when he's filming himself in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, for all his overt preening and self-consciousness, he never really breaks character--even when he's wondering aloud between takes about whether his hair looks okay, chasing a fox that stole his hat, or whining into his hand-held cam about how he's a nice guy who can't get laid.
In between takes we see Treadwell addressing the camera less formally--but he's the same self-deluded narcissist throughout.
Herzog only gradually reveals the extent of Treadwell's self-delusion.
Treadwell's central claim is that he's on a mission to protect the bears, but we eventually learn that Katmai Park is already a federally protected nature preserve patrolled by the Federal Parks Service. As a real bear biologist later explains, the grizzly population of Katmai isn't even endangered. Poaching isn't a major problem in Katmai, and when potential poachers turn up, the flighty, unarmed Treadwell proves a feeble deterrent.
For all his tearful statements of devotion, Treadwell's relationship with the grizzlies is remarkably shallow. He gives them cutesy names and addresses them in baby talk. He has no apparent scientific curiosity about the bears. The last thing he wants is a detached human perspective on his "animal friends."
Treadwell effectively domesticates the foxes in his camp. Blissed out pups lie against Treadwell as he strokes their fur. When he gets up, they follow him like dogs. Sometimes he spills his guts to the nice foxes about his problems with the glorious but unattainable bears.
More than anything Grizzly Man captures the paradox of narcissism. Treadwell can't relate to anyone or anything except as an extension of his own desires. He desperately wants to be liked and respected, but he can't step outside himself long enough to imagine how he's coming across to other people, or even to animals.
Herzog and his informants search for meaning in Treadwell's life and death, but what did he really accomplish? Very little, as it turns out. He didn't learn much about bears because he was overcome by his own gooey sentimentality. If the video record is any indication, he didn't learn anything about himself. You keep wondering when he's going to realize how absurd he looks. Instead, he spent his months of solitude constructing elaborate cinematic "proof" of his own heroism. Ironically, the record shows the exact opposite.