Last year it was "Fahrenheit 9/11." The year before it was "Bowling for Columbine." But this year's must-see documentary has eclipsed Michael Moore's standing as America's favorite brainchild of the documentary world. Leading the pack of 2005's real-world film-making is Wernor Herzog's "Grizzly Man."
"Grizzly Man" is about Tim Treadwell's 13 summers spent on Alaska's Kodiak Island, a national park and protected wilderness habitat, living and romping with America's most ferocious beast, the grizzly bear.
If you are looking for a nature film, this is not it. In the first minutes of this documentary, I couldn't help almost giggling as I wondered, is this a self-parody? Is this guy for real? However, as the documentary unfolds, a picture emerges of a gentle, sweet soul who co-exists with wildlife far better than he could with his more sophisticated human counterparts. He could trust his animal "friends" because their motives were primal, not obscured by hidden agendas incomprehensible to his rather immature view of the world. He was a man who couldn't function in society, and he knew it. Living with the bears not only gave meaning to his life, but it gave him companionship of a type that was impossible because of his idiosyncrasies, insecurities and inability to enter into mature relationships. Giving his life to save the already protected bears, while contradictory to the rest of the world, made sense to him, made sense for his life.
Much has been made of Treadwell's mental health in the aftermath of his bloody demise at the hands of one of the bears he claimed to be protecting. After all, not only did he put his own life in jeopardy, but his girlfriend's as well. Her name was Amie Huegenot, and she was with Treadwell, sharing his fate the day the bear turned on Treadwell in a surprise attack, leaving a trail of scattered body parts. Just hours before his demise, Amie held the camera while Treadwell described his life in the wilderness, poignantly declaring the danger that daily threatened his life. In what were his last words to the world, Treadwell declared, "Everyday I am here, giving everything I have to protect these bears, these misunderstood and threatened creatures. I'm proud of myself, I'm proud of what I do. I would die for these bears. I love them."
In the end, this is not a film about Treadwell, even, so much as it is about the sad reality that for people who don't or can't find their niche in society, finding meaning in their lives is often difficult, if not impossible. Treadwell went the way of addiction until his accidental discovery of the bear habitat in Alaska changed the course of his life. Unquestionably, Treadwell lived the last 13 years of his life in harmony – at last – and with meaning. Still troubled by the fact that he was a human and not a bear, he finally met his ultimate fate, the fate that awaits all wildlife. And long after the last frame fades from view, you will feel the impact of the life he lived. He was crazy. He was a narcissist. He had demons. But he was also a person that finally found something worth living – and dying – for. For that, if nothing else, Treadwell's life gives us all something to strive for.
If you are interested, this documentary can be seen tonight on the Discovery Channel. Enjoy.