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Grizzly Man

Movies | A documentary of environmental activist Timothy Treadwell excels in its harsh reality

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers living, alone or with a single companion, in the Alaskan wilderness among grizzly bears. In 2003, after a particularly long stay in the wild, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and eaten by a bear at their campsite.

An environmental activist, Treadwell viewed himself as the bears' friend and protector. He painstakingly documented the time he spent with his beloved bears, leaving behind nearly 100 hours of footage meant to educate the world on the plight of his "friends."

That footage was edited together, along with new interviews with friends, acquaintances, and others connected to Treadwell's life and death, for the documentary Grizzly Man (rated R for language), now available on DVD. Grizzly Man is the antidote to Disney drivel like Brother Bear, shattering the conservationist myth that humans and animals somehow exist on the same plane of consciousness. If some want to notice in March of the Penguins a similarity to human behavior, Mr. Herzog's film, one of the best of last year, is a stark warning not to take the comparison too far. (A brief monologue on dating and sex and a few profanity-laced rants by Treadwell give this film its rating.)

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Legendary German director Werner Herzog wrote, directed, and narrates Grizzly Man, and he looks at Treadwell's fanaticism with a piercing, unsentimental eye. While Mr. Herzog doesn't immediately dismiss Treadwell's loony idealism, he slowly builds a picture of a sad, lost young man who believes that his desperate search for meaning has found an answer in creatures with which he has no natural bond.

That harsh reality, documented here as perhaps never before, is the most fascinating aspect of Grizzly Man. Treadwell, with no apparent justification, believed that the bears needed his help to survive unknown and unseen human predators, and that he could assimilate himself into their bear culture. Yet by the end of the film, Mr. Herzog is prepared to level this devastating critique: In all the hours of footage he reviewed, never once did he witness a glimmer of recognition for Treadwell in the bears' eyes-"only the half-bored interest in food."

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